Truffaldino Says No, now at Shotgun under the direction of M. Graham Smith, is a loving deconstruction of commedia dell'arte. But the play is at its best when it merely shows the cracks in the form's façade, as opposed to when it explodes commedia's foundation and tries to build it back up again.
Ken Slattery's play is a coproduction with PlayGround, where it premiered as a ten-minute version in 2009. Each year, PlayGround produces 36 short plays and then selects seven to become full-length productions. Truffaldino was one such play, and to some extent, the beefing up is what bogs it down.
It's easy to see how the play could have worked both as a very short piece and as one with potential for expansion. Commedia, which is characterized by stock characters, physical comedy, improvisation, and farcical plots, was for centuries Europe's most popular theater form, and Slattery draws on it extensively. For the first and better act, traditional commedia characters dominate. The masters are Pantalone (Brian Herndon), the cheapskate who loves to finger the sacks of coins that dangle over his groin; Il Dottore (Joe Lucas), the insufferable pedant; their respective children, Isabella (Ally Johnson) and Flavio (Michael Phillis), also known as the Innamorati, who are more in love with being in love than with each other; and Il Capitano (Andy Alabran), a soldier who's paranoid about imaginary Turkish invaders but who responds to danger with all the ferocity of a pair of bunny slippers. Then there are the servants, or "Zanni:" Areleccino (Stephen Buescher), whose elastic physicality is hampered by his tendency to get confused, or as Buescher pronounces it in his Super Mario accent, "con-foo-zed"; Colombina (Gwen Loeb), his wife, the object of much lust (and the stage's sole proprietor of common sense); and their son Truffaldino (William Thomas Hodgson), who seems poised to inherit his father's position in their community until, as the title suggests, he "says no," peeling off his mask and prompting the lights to come up. He's rejecting both his character type and the entire world of commedia, with its tricks and tangles and chases, its eavesdropping and letter-writing, its brief indulgence of chaos before an inevitable return to order -- an order that keeps him shackled at the bottom. But Truffaldino's rejection only sparks more commedia shenanigans, only now with the characters chafing at their proscribed roles -- two reveal that they're gay -- which only adds to the fun.
Though the cast is universally strong, Buescher's performance of Arleccino elevates the first act to world-class quality. He is a cartoon character come to life, constantly in motion and exaggerating every movement: He shows a change of mood not just with a shift in expression but two flips; he never simply walks across the stage but always employs extra body parts to make the trip a physical feat. When he pantomimes a boxing match with his own heart or tries in vain to get his codpiece to obey his mind, his gestures are so specific that his adversaries seem not only to come to life but also to have whole personalities. It's a rare pleasure to watch a performer with a talent like Charlie Chaplin's or Bill Irwin's in a theater like Shotgun's, where no matter where you sit you're close enough to appreciate every gesture.
It's telling that the second act, in which Truffaldino leaves the Old World for the New, features much less of Buescher. Here, Truffaldino, intent on being dissatisfied but hazy as to what would satisfy him, encounters a modern cast of characters all too similar to (and played by the same actors as) the ones he left behind. He's gone from Venice to Venice Beach, where he finds work at an inn with a valley girl and surfer bro, an absent-minded professor and a militaristic xenophobe. But in a concession to contemporary acting norms, the physical comedy subsides, and what emerges is what we go to the theater to escape -- a bad sitcom. Slattery's point, that we are bound by roles and rules wherever (or whenever) we go, is well taken, but it's not an original one, and it certainly doesn't require an entire act to prove. What Truffaldino Says No does show is that to illuminate phenomena about our world, sometimes it's best to stay in the old one.
Truffaldino Says No continues through July 22 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. (at MLK), Berkeley. Admission is $18 - $25.