Folks have been laughing at Commedia dell’Arte for half a millenium and we’re not going to stop now. The stock characters of Commedia — comic misers, pompous pendants, wily servants, innocent young lovers, cuckolded husbands with young wives, clever wives of foolish men — are universal. Opera? Think The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Classic plays? Think of Shakespeare, whose comedies draw heavily on the tradition. Modern comedians? What more perfect comic miser than the great Jack Benny? Or how about Professor Irwin Corey for a pompous pendant?
Commedia is a mother lode of comic material, and Ken Slattery knows how to mine it. The first half of Truffaldino Says No is traditional Commedia, wonderfully performed by a cast of excellent physical comics under M. Graham Smith’s expert direction. Laugh you will. Stephen Buescher as Arlecchino is a joy to behold, a cornucopia of comical tics and eccentricities, pratfalls and acrobatics. For his day job, Mr. Buescher serves as Head of Physical Theater at ACT and here he gives the lie to the foolish adage, “Those who can’t, teach”. As Arlecchino’s son, Truffaldino, William Thomas Hodgson is equally amusing, the son cleverly mocking the father. The other “usual suspects” — the miser Pantalone, the blow hard El Capitano, the wise Colombina, the pompous Il Dottore and young lovers Isabella and Flavio — are all pitch perfect. The sets, the costumes, the masks and the staging all conspire to bring the tradition to vibrant life.
But something unexpected happens: as the plot thickens in the traditional manner, Truffaldino suddenly refuses to play his part. He does not want to repeat the endless variations of the Commedia for the rest of his life. He wants to see the world. His explosive “No!” is completely unexpected and the shocked reactions of the company are everything one could ask for. Arlecchino’s astonished disappointment when he realizes his son does not want to follow in his footsteps is surprisingly moving. The first act ends with Truffaldino’s announcement that he is off to the new world.
The second act is set in Venice, California where Truffaldino finds himself living in a sitcom, “Brighella’s Inn”, in which he is essentially engaged with modern versions of the Commedia troupe. Complications ensue and eventually the entire troupe appears, with all the actors performing double duty as their commedia characters and their modern counterparts.
The second act modernization is a clever idea that sounds better than it plays. I think the playwright missed an opportunity—I would have preferred to see the implications of Turffaldino’s refusal played out in his original milieu. As situation comedy, the characters just aren’t as funny as the originals. Moreover, the moving dismay of Papa Arlecchino at his son’s “No!” promised interesting developments that were not delivered.
Still, it is not my place to review the play that might have been. As it stands, Truffaldino Says No is a delightful comedy, guaranteed to amuse.
Truffaldino Says No continues at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley through July 22. For further information, click here.
“Truffaldino Says No” by Ken Slattery, produced by Shotgun Players. Director: M. Graham Smith. Set Design: Martin Flynn. Lighting Design: Heather Basarab. Costume Design: Maggie Whitaker. Mask Design: Emelia Sumelius-Buescher. Original music: Dave Malloy.
Il Capitano/Prewitt: Andy Alabran. Arlecchino/Hal: Stephen Buescher. Pantalone/Frank: Brian Herndon. Truffaldino: William Thomas Hodgson. Isabella/Debbie: Ally Johnson. Combina/Kate: Gwen Loeb. Joe Lucas: Il Dottore/Wiseman. Michael Phillis: Flavio/Mike.
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