Ally Johnson as Isabella in the Shotgun Players/Playground premiere of “Truffaldino Says No”. Photo: Jessica Palopoli
Ally Johnson as Isabella in the Shotgun Players/Playground premiere of “Truffaldino Says No”. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Truffaldino Says No, presented by Shotgun Players in a joint production with PlayGround, a Berkeley Rep playwriting laboratory, barrels into the story of a young man’s expedition with terrific velocity and grand intentions. Combining aspects of Commedia dell’Arte and 1980’s sitcom sensibilities, the journey from Venice to Venice Beach is rife with clever humor and reaches for depth beyond the laughter.

Playwright Ken Slattery’s Truffaldino (William Thomas Hodgson) is a son, predestined to become a carbon copy of his father. Arlecchino, (Stephen Buescher), slaves in the Old World of servants under masters and expects his child will follow suit. Unfortunately, as a younger generation is want to do, Truffaldino has ideas of his own.

Hilariously and surreptitiously called all manner of variations on his name (Truffalpipi, Truffaldingdong, Truffal–whatever) by the woman he both serves and loves, a fluffy, vacuous Isabella (Ally Johnson), the young rebel participates in his doomed-to-follow fate until announcing, expectedly, “No!”

Refusing to creep in subservience and supported by Colombina (Gwen Loeb), his confident, flirts-with-anything-in-pants mother, Truffaldino leaves behind the characters of his current misery to discover his true destiny in the “new world”.

Arriving in America, he falls into a position as innkeeper, but soon discovers his tie-cutting travel is unsuccessful. The money-grubbing Pantalone reappears as pink-suited Frank; the know-and-tell of Il Dottore is an unstoppable fountain of information in Wiseman, and Il Capitano—whose sniveling, suspicious attitude towards anything other than sliced white bread is played masterfully by Andy Alabran—is the equally distasteful Prewitt.

When Isabella/Debbie arrives on the scene—accompanied by her love interest, Flavio/Mike (Michael Phillis), who has ditched poetry for the modern day pool but still holds a mysterious, romantic attraction for the zero-sum gal—the plot is thicker than wet cement and soon seals Truffaldino’s fate.

Director M. Graham Smith mashes the manipulations into a tornadic swirl, with actors barely breeching the edge of the stage before doing a 180 to re-enter as their old world/new world opposite.

Buescher bumps his incredible physical dexterity up to the level of gymnastics: slithering on an off a staircase, polka-stepping through the diamond-dotted set and flipping mask, priestly collar and tone of voice on and off like a light switch.

Loeb too, stands out for transforming herself with a pair of sunglasses and a hat, although it’s the changing accents and swishy hips/squared hips contrast that reveal her considerable acting chops.

With a forceful cast, each contributing to the whole zany mishmash of desire and defiance, the comedic notes are hit hard by the well-written script. Unfortunately, the low tones, promised in program notes from Slattery and the theater company, fell oddly short. The deeper explorations, into the grim corners of competition between a parent and a child, the torment of loving someone who loves another, the frustration of desires unfulfilled or dreams denied, receive skirting attention aimed at comedy. Lacking a layer of depth, Truffaldino’s “No!” is somewhat reduced, however enjoyably.

Still, there’s much to admire in Emilia Sumelius-Buescher’s masks, Smith’s obvious affinity for Slattery’s script, and even more to savor in the casts’ comedic craft.

Truffaldino Says No plays until July 29 at the Ashby Stage. For more information and tickets visit the Shotgun Player’s website.

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