Commedia dell’arte by way of Bert Lahr and Danny Kaye might best sum up the Pearl Theater Company’s “The Venetian Twins,” a vividly funny production that all but dares audiences to turn away from its boundless silliness. Carlo Goldoni wrote the play in 1748 — predating “Dumb and Dumber” by nearly 250 years — yet director John Rando and translator Michael Feingold give the work a freshness from beginning to end.
Although beginning to end is too long a trip (at 2 1/2 hours, this little gem starts to lose its shine midway through before reviving its luster toward the end), “The Venetian Twins” contains more than its share of attention-grabbing twists both in script and execution. Significant meaning might be lurking beneath Renzo Antonello’s commedia dell’arte masks worn by two minor players, intimations of hidden motives and elusive character, but this production is best taken at its own giddy face value.
The mixed-identity plot stirs up the usual farcical confusion as twin brothers, separated since childhood, arrive in Verona on the same day. Chaos ensues, with jealous lovers, stolen jewels, poisoned wine and comic sword duels spilling forth at breakneck pace.
Leading the talented cast is Arnie Burton as both twins, one foolishly noble, the other just foolish. The actor embodies the sly blend of classic farce, vaudeville bravado and Hollywood slapstick that Rando and Feingold have used to bring Goldoni’s play to life.
As translated by Feingold, the dialogue sounds modern, with the occasional anachronism used for jarring comic effect.
Rando’s direction is similarly skewed, moving at a speed that quite rightly doesn’t give audiences much down time between gags. The director occasionally leans toward the gimmicky — the lighting turns spooky every time the box of glowing jewels is opened — but the quirky touches hit more than miss. In one sword-fighting scene (cleverly choreographed by Rick Sordelet), a bored duelist begins reading aloud from an audience member’s program, including the bio of the actor playing his opponent. It isn’t the only time that the cast breaks the wall between performers and aud, with one particularly inspired bit involving an audience plant.
The cast handles this untidy sprawl with great spirit, even when the production grows a bit wearisome in the second act. Joining Burton as standouts are Kevin Black as a witless romantic rival and Robin Leslie Brown as a smart-aleck servant.
Tech credits, particularly Robert Joel Schwartz’s off-kilter street set and Deborah Rooney’s period costumes, are bright-on-a-budget.
“The Venetian Twins” has never been performed professionally in English in New York. The Pearl production makes for a welcome introduction.