`Servant' supplies hearty portions

Review: With some lighthearted humor, this heavy charmer gets a seal of approval.

April 10, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

This is how Truffaldino, the title character in "A Servant to Two Masters," attempts to create a bit of makeshift glue to re-seal a letter in the Young Vic/Royal Shakespeare Company's production: First actor Jason Watkins takes a bite out of the small piece of bread he has been hoarding as "emergency rations." But chewing it into a sticky paste gets the gluttonous servant's taste buds going. He raises one foot in glee. A look of sheer ecstasy crosses his face. Before he realizes what he's done, he has swallowed the morsel.

Dismayed, he takes another bite. Attempting to dislike it, he breaks into a fight with himself, growling, snarling, but eventually capitulating and, once again, swallowing. With only one bite left, he has no recourse but to curb his impulses, and this time he nearly strangles himself to keep from swallowing.

Truffaldino's insatiable appetite is his chief motivation in "Servant," and under Tim Supple's highly physical direction, Watkins has a way of conveying hunger that appears to stretch from his nimble toes to his thinning, spiky hair. Whatever his prowess at re-sealing envelopes, Watkins' madcap performance is the glue - make that silly putty - that binds this frolicsome production together.

And Truffaldino's hunger is no incidental matter. As Lee Hall, who adapted Carlo Goldoni's 18th- century comedy, has stated, "hunger - in all its forms" is the central force driving all the action.

Hunger in the form of lust motivates the play's three sets of lovers: Beatrice arrives in Venice disguised as her dead brother as she searches for her beloved Florindo. Clarice was to have married Beatrice's brother, but has fallen in love with Silvio, a love that's threatened when Beatrice shows up in disguise. And Truffaldino is smitten with Clarice's maid, Smeraldina.

It's Truffaldino's belly, however, not his heart, that leads him to accept the comically conflicting jobs that form the core of the play, signing on as servant to Florindo as well as Beatrice, and assuming neither will discover his double duty.

Although "A Servant to Two Masters" stems from the Italian commedia dell'arte tradition, the strong female characters of Beatrice and Smeraldina are reminiscent of Shakespeare's comic heroines, and Rachel Sanders and especially Catherine Tate as the impudent maid do their respective roles proud. Also noteworthy is Steve Toussaint as Florindo, a stalwart romantic hero who will nonetheless have his work cut out for him if he ever tries to lord it over Sanders' Beatrice, who has taken quite a liking to wearing trousers.

Hall (the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of "Billy Elliot") peppers his script adaptation with modern references to everything from downsizing and time management to such Americanizations as the Poconos and Monica Lewinsky. It's too liberally peppered, however, with a certain four-letter vulgarity, a word that can be used once or possibly twice for comic effect, but loses its punch after that.

Similarly, Supple's direction lapses into self-indulgence when he has Truffaldino engage theatergoers' assistance in airing out his two masters' clothing. An initially amusing bit of audience involvement, it goes on far too long. That said, Watkins is such a charmer, it's difficult to stay peeved with him, as Truffaldino's masters also discover.

This British production is the first of three plays coming to the Kennedy Center this spring as part of a celebration of the arts of the United Kingdom. (The others are George Eliot's "Mill on the Floss" by the Shared Experience Theatre Company in May and Frank Wedekind's "Lulu" by the Almeida Theatre in June). The lightest of the three, this sprightly "Servant" is a little like getting to eat dessert first, an indulgence that would surely win Truffaldino's approval.

`A Servant'

Where: Kennedy Center, 2600 Virginia Ave., N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Through April 29.

Admission:$20-$59

Call: 800-444-1324

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