Mirandolina at Center REP

Dave and I went to Walnut Creek Saturday for a preview performance of Center REP’s new production of Mirandolina! Mistress of a Tuscan Inn, an English-language version of the 18th-century Italian comedy La locandiera by Carlo Goldoni. We had a great time, and we’re planning to go back for a second look later in the run.

It’s a terrific production. The characters are strongly and strikingly portrayed by the excellent ensemble, headed by Tracy Hazas (who I don’t recall having seen before) as Mirandolina, an innkeeper who unwisely keeps the man she truly loves at arm’s length, partly because she’s too busy managing her inn, but mostly because two of her regular guests are smitten with her, and as they are both important men, she wants to keep their patronage by not dashing their hopes. One is a sour and haughty nobleman by birth who is constantly borrowing money to live on (played by Mark Anderson Phillips, who I think we last saw playing Oscar Wilde and an assortment of other roles in Mark Jackson’s Salomania! a few years back); the other is a brash, wealthy merchant who has recently purchased the title of count for himself (played by Michael Butler, in a more flamboyant role than I think we’ve seen him in before). The rivalry between the Count and the Marchese, each trying to one-up the other in front of Mirandolina, works to Mirandolina’s benefit — particularly when the men compete in giving her expensive gifts.

A third man comes to the inn, a misogynistic cavalier (Gabriel Marin, a longtime favorite). Mirandolina is angered by his disdain for women and decides she’s going to use her wiles to make him fall in love with her. At this point it’s easy to be reminded of Much Ado About Nothing, but the situation is different — and morally dicier — because Mirandolina does not actually love the cavalier, but is seducing him only to get revenge for her wounded pride. Meanwhile, the man she really loves, her butler Fabrizio (Ben Euphrat), waits on the sidelines with growing frustration. A couple of touring actresses having a lark between stops (Lynda DiVito and Lizzie O’Hara), wearing theatrical costumes and pretending to be noblewomen, add to the complications.

All this is played out on a wonderful, brightly colored set (by Nina Ball) that revolves to show the various locations in and around the inn. A swordfight that staggers from room to room as the set keeps spinning is a high point of the second act.

Goldoni’s comedies seem to be hard to pull off in English. I’ve read or seen six or seven, and in all of them his dramatic construction is loose, in the commedia dell’arte style; he evidently meant his performers to have a certain amount of room for improvising and bringing their own personalities with them — indeed, in 18th-century Italy, if his plays hadn’t provided those opportunities, the best performers wouldn’t have wanted to do them. That makes the plays a challenge to do in a different time and place where commedia is not part of the culture.

And then the plays are gentler and warmer than, say, the similar comedies of Molière and Gozzi, whose sharper, more satirical caricatures travel better across cultural borders. Goldoni poked affectionate fun at the manners, society, and even the dialects of Tuscany and Venice, and those things don’t mean much to us Americans.

This adaptation doesn’t really find ways of bringing those aspects of the play to life, I think, and as a result the play itself comes across feeling like a thinner and more conventional farce than it really is. But Timothy Near’s direction is sure-handed and most importantly the cast is strong, so it all works anyway. Lots of fun. We’re going back.

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