Like improv? You’ll love the Hilberry comedy ‘The Servant of Two Masters’

Photo by Janine M. Pixley

Photo by Janine M. Pixley

Jordan Whalen (left) as Florindo Aretusi, Jason Cabral as Arlecchino and Sara Hymes as Beatrice Rasponi perform in the Hilberry Theatre’s “The Servant of Two Masters”performed in traditional Commedia dell’Arte.

By Sue Suchyta
Need some laughter to take a mental vacation from the economy and the cold? Look no further than the Hilberry Theatre, Wayne State University’s graduate theater, where they launched the New Year with Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters” (adapted by James Tompkins), performed in traditional Commedia dell’Arte style.

Commedia dell’Arte is very physical form of theater where masks force actors to project their characters’ emotions through their body. The characters leap, tumble and use stock gags (lazzi), large gestures and slapstick. The Italian comedy format was used by professional actors throughout Italy in the 16th century.

Despite its resemblance to modern improv, Commedia dell’Arte is a highly disciplined ensemble exercise. However, the cast has fun with the clever comedy. Local humor sneaks in when you least expect it. Listen for the WSU “Aim Higher” inside joke.

The plot focuses on an underpaid yet wily Italian servant, Arlecchino, played by Jason Cabral. The actor’s affinity for physical comedy may be remembered from his very physical (and double-cast) performance of Puck in the Hilberry’s production of, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Arlecchino is like a growing boy: He’s a hungry bottomless pit. He seeks a second master to double his access to meals. Two jobs mean twice as much food, but his workload not only doubles, it conflicts with comic results. When his two masters seek each other on a matter unrelated to their servant, laughter ensues.

The show is fun for the audience, and both physically demanding and challenging for the actors. You have your comic characters, your straight men, and your supporting ensemble performing many parts and setting the show’s quick successful tempo.

Safiya Johnson, an underutilized actress, is fun and entertaining as Mama Grisanti, though her character’s resemblance to a beloved pancake icon is trite, if not borderline politically incorrect.

Christina Flynn, so often cast as the good girl (such as Daisy in “Biloxi Blues”), is very entertaining as the hot-blooded Columbia. Her physical interactions with Cabral’s Arlecchino are hysterically funny and intentionally salacious in nature.

Sara Hymes as Beatrice and Jordan Whalen as Florindo are excellent as the straight-men masters. Lorelei Sturm has fun as the pouting “princess” Clarice.

The talented ensemble also includes Christopher R. Ellis as Pantalone; Andrew Papa as Doctor Paedagogus; Erman Jones as Silvio; and Alan Ball, Rob Pantano, Carollette Phillips, Peter Prouty, Samantha L. Rosentrater, Brian P. Sage, Dave Toomey and Justin Vanden Heuvel as the Zanni.

The costumes, designed by Cara Ward, are colorful and functional. Christopher Otwell’s set is versatile and facilitates the rapid pace. Movement coach Nira Pullin channels the cast’s energy and talent to make the most of the unique style of comedy.

You’ll enjoy the clever quips, the juggling, pitching, pratfalls and more. Watch the minor characters, as well, for added kitch and comedy.

“The Servant of Two Masters” will run in rotating repertory through March 27 with Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer night’s Dream,” Chekov’s “The Seagull” and (opening Feb. 27) Taylor’s “Good.”

Show dates are 2 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Feb. 12; 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 13; and 8 p.m. March 4, 11, 12, 13, 26 and 27.

The Hilberry is at 4743 Cass in Detroit. For tickets, call the box office at (313) 577-2972 or go to website at

Mario’s Restaurant, 4222 Second Ave., offers a 15 percent discount on entrées and offers a free round-trip shuttle to the Hilberry. Call (313) 832-1616 for reservations.