For me, nothing signifies summer in Ottawa more than the sight of the Odyssey Theatre stage on the edge of Strathcona Park.
I’ve been attending their shows since before I was in high school, and I’ve always loved being transported by the commedia dell’arte masked characters to an Italian piazza or a mystical kingdom.
In celebrating thirty-two years of original productions, it is only natural that some are better than others. Last year’s The Servant of Two Masters, for instance, was a triumphant. Unfortunately, this year’s presentation of Goldoni’s The Amorous Servant, translated by John Van Burek and directed by Attila Clemann, misses the mark.
In true commedia fashion, the narrative follows the drama between two families headed by men beyond their prime and muddied by a multitude of young people in love. Ottavio’s naïve young son Florindo (Christopher Allen) is thrust from his family home at the behest of his elderly father’s (David Warburton) new wife Beatrice (Suzanne Roberts Smith), an ambitious younger woman who only wants an inheritance for herself and for her own foolish son, Lelio (Abraham Asto). The only person looking out for Florindo is his ‘amorous servant’ Corallina (Lise Cormier), who loves him enough to find him a suitable wife of his own, rather than exploit his gratitude for her own benefit.
The production gets off to a slow start with the two patriarchs (Warburton and Chris Ralph) presenting the expository material in a lacklustre exchange, which was not helped by the static blocking. Throughout the play, actors often stood side by side or in a straight line, lacking any dynamic movement between them. There were a couple of choreographed sequences and fight sequences, but they were not well-timed.
I had hoped for a bit of swift comic business from commedia’s most mischievous character Arlecchino, who often steals the show, but in this production I barely noticed the difference in tone or action when he (played by Joshua Browne) was onstage.
I wasn’t at first sold on the portrayal of the overwrought lovers, but that changed when they were in the same room together.
I had also hoped to find joy in the portrayal of Corallina, trumpeted as the script’s strong female character, however the actor’s delivery resembled that of a town crier, proclaiming everything with the same tone and emphasis. The extended joke where she repeats “Let’s talk of things that make us happy” fell flat with Friday evening’s audience. And it didn’t help that the script forced her to explain her character’s motivations to excess.
I wasn’t at first sold on the portrayal of the overwrought lovers (Allen and Tiffany Claire Martin), but that changed when they were in the same room together. Suddenly there was electricity, as they danced around each other like excitable eels, just barely daring to touch hands. This was right at the end of the first act, and it was the first time I felt truly engaged with the action onstage.
Though I should also note that Abraham Asto as Lelio/Brighella was consistently good throughout: his energy and gusto were a welcome presence as he catapulted through each scene.
Another quibble: the production chose to include quite a bit of Italian dialogue, and some of the actors had Italian accents, but neither were consistent. It seemed that Beatrice and Lelio had the thickest, most obvious accents: is that because they’re the more deceitful characters? Is that racist? I’m not entirely sure, but I feel it worth questioning.
This production of The Amorous Servant will likely win over many first-time Odyssey Theatre attendees, as the show is lovely to look at – especially with a rather nice set from John Doucet, colourful costumes from Vanessa Imeson, and gorgeous masks from Jerrard Smith – and still delivers that wonderful ‘theatre under the stars’ experience. But I’ll maintain that there’s something missing in this year’s show that left me thinking about the many other Odyssey Theatre productions I’ve enjoyed over the years.
The Amorous Servant plays until August 20 at 8pm in Strathcona Park. Sunday matinee at 2pm is pay-what-you-can. For all shows, tickets are available online. Visit www.odysseytheatre.ca for more details.