Brian Herndon as Pantalone with Stephen Buescher a Arlecchino (b.g.). Photo by Jessica Palopol

Truffaldino Says No: By Ken Slattery. Directed by M. Graham Smith. Presented by Shotgun Players a Co-production with Playground. Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. (510) 841-6500. July 6 - July 22, 2012.

Say yes to TRUFFLADINO SAYS NO at Ashby Stage

Looking for an evening of theatrical fun? If so, get thee hence to the Ashby Stage where eight characters created by an up and coming playwright are having a merry hysterical romp with enough physical activity for a dozen plays. You will also witness the rebirth of the 500 year old Commedia dell’Arte and then be treated to its transformation as modern day TV sit-com before the figurative curtain descends and the audience erupts with a spontaneous standing ovation.

If you are not familiar with the playwriting group known as Playground you should be. It is where budding writers submit 10 minute scripts to be judged by theater professionals. The best of those submitted are given a full stage production (although limited in scope) and presented as The Best of Playground. In 2009 Ken Slattery, an Irish transplant from Dublin, had one of his short plays Truffaldino Says No selected for production.

The stimulus for the Truffaldino Says No was the noun “arlecchino” which is the Italian word for harlequin the most popular comic servant character from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte. The 10 minute gem was the favorite of the 2009 plays and Slattery was given a commission to develop it into a full length play. Shotgun’s production is even more hilarious and colorful than the short version. It should be, since it is has been three years in the making and the show is a labor of love for all involved. They have brought back Michael Phillis and Brian Herndon from the original cast and filled the other six roles with superb performers.

Commedia dell’Arte involves stock characters with distinctive masks and clothing with only the Inamorata (lovers) without masks. The productions are very physical with a great deal slapstick with fixed routines as the basis for improvisation. There are no improvisations in Slattery’s version although M. Graham’s Smith’s slick direction would make you wonder if he gave his cast license to do so.

Truffaldino (William Thomas Hodgson), his father Arlecchino (Stephen Buescher) and mother Colombina (Gwen Loeb) are servants (zanni) to a greedy old miser and lecher Pantalone (Brian Herdon) and he is given a mask with an appropriate hooked nose and a garish costume to boot. His flighty daughter, beautiful Isabella (an Innamorata) is in love with the other half of the Innamorati young poet Flavio (Michael Phillis). Alas the potential lovers have never been able to be alone together. Although poor Truffaldino’s love for Isabella is not reciprocated, he agrees to help his father arrange a tryst and in the best Comedia dell’Arte twist everything goes wrong.

Tied up in all the shenanigans are other stock characters that include the intellectual bore Il Dottore (Joe Lucas), a grandiose, cowardly Il Capitano (Andy Alabran) who fears a Turkish attack on Venice that just happens to be the setting for the play. A seamy secondary plot line involves Pantalone’s pursuit of voluptuous and willing Colombina.

Truffaldino has had all he can take of being a stock character and says “I’m not going to take it anymore.” (That line is from an academy award winning movie. He simply says “No” and goes on to tell us why.) Most, or is it all, of the characters step forward to address the audience or express inner thoughts throughout the play and do so beautifully. Our hero will not be dissuaded and departs for the New World. In the play the New World is modern day Venice, California.

With some brilliant writing Slattery converts all the Old World characters into New World denizens and the actors are forced to slip in and out of New to Old and vice versa roles at the drop of a line. You will split a gut keeping up with them and wonder “how did he/she do that?”

The acting is of course very broad. In the opening sequences Buescher who is the head of Physical Theater at ACT and Hodgson are virtual pretzels of human form bouncing around the stage without missing a line. Gorgeous Ally Johnson and willowy Michael Phillis demonstrate charming contrasts in technique but Phillis (the cad) is a scene stealer. Gwen Loeb exudes sex and uses great timing in her punch lines and is a perfect sounding board for those who challenge her. Andy Alabran as the Il Capitano in act one Old World is reincarnated as Prewitt a local border guard searching for illegal immigrants giving further justification for what is new is old. Joe Lucas’s Il Dottore garners his share of laughs in the Old World and as the Wiseman in the New.

Directing such a play with diverse settings in time and place must have been a tremendous burden but M. Graham Smith’s direction is spot on with so many deft touches one would be hard pressed to find specific instances to praise. OK, I’ll tell you one: Look for the vignette when Columbina is folding a bed sheet while consoling Isabella about Flavio.

Summary of why you should go: The writing is Sublime. The acting is Superb. The costumes and masks are Sensational. The staging is Super. Finally, as alliteration is depleted let’s end with it’s a Swell evening.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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