At Shakespeare Theatre, a true master of its comic domain
By Peter Marks,
Click, click, click. That’s the precision with which practically every jubilant act of irreverence registers in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s deliriously happy-making version of Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters.”
Who knew that in jaded 2012 one could declare that few comic geniuses are as good as Goldoni? He died in 1793, and we all know how ephemeral taste in comedy can be. And yet this emblematic entry from the heyday of commedia dell’arte has of late spawned not one but two top-drawer adaptations: On Broadway, the uproariously updated “One Man, Two Guv’nors,” from London’s National Theatre, is nightly splitting sides courtesy of a priceless crew led by Tony-nominated James Corden.
Here in Washington, the play — in perhaps only a slightly more faithful confection, sublimely directed by Christopher Bayes — provides an equivalent bowlful of joy. Up there with playwright David Ives’s riffs on classical French comedy, director Keith Baxter’s zany treatments of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Michael Kahn’s of Ben Jonson, this “Servant” ranks as one of the most gleeful Shakespeare company offerings of the past 10 years.
Before I go on about the bona-fide hilarity of the cast — headed by the invaluable Steven Epp, a stylistic cousin-in-clowning to the humility-projecting Bill Irwin — let me just stop here to reflect on a reference above that might have given you pause. Yes, I did connect “commedia dell’arte” and “hilarity.” In inexpert hands, the exaggerated mannerisms and stock characters of highly physical Italian comedy can be about as inviting as the Red Line on a day of single-tracking. It’s all too easy for the slapstick to lapse into calcified frivolity, the fake jabs to the head to become tedious and the ribald storytelling conventions to grow desperate. (Ever sat through the set of a stand-up comic who’s working a tad too hard?)
Rest assured: Bayes and company, egged on by adapter Constance Congdon’s buoyant script and the exuberant melodies of Chris Curtis and Aaron Halva, consistently locate Goldoni’s sweet spot. (The director originally staged the play, with a few variations in cast, at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven.) Interspersing the jokes with whimsical choreography and a few delightful stage effects — set designer Katherine Akiko Day and lighting designer Chuan-Chi Chan devise an enchantingly flickering prologue — the production conveys a completeness in all its assorted parts.
Okay, it’s in the nature of such carbonated mischief that some of the zaniness veers out of bounds, especially in a show that shamelessly trots out anachronisms and even encourages the actors to improvise. At the official opening Sunday night in the Lansburgh Theatre, a mildly tasteless ad-lib about Whitney Houston set off a chain reaction of actor giggling. The moment came across less as edginess than self-indulgence. (My unsolicited advice to Epp, who plays the servant of the title, Truffaldino, would be to trim the knee-jerk Federal Washington allusions by about 50 percent. Leave the so-so digs at Nancy Pelosi and Rick Santorum to the likes of Jimmy Kimmel.)
Much of the time, though, Epp’s witty elan and winning bewilderment come across as comic grace. He’s altogether lovable, even when voicing what seem to be his own meta-theatrical opinions. “Is this really the play?” he asks us, on several occasions. Well, this is about the size of it: Truffaldino messes up everything he touches in Venice, where he manages to get hired, independently, by both halves of a passionate couple, separated by violent circumstance. Hot Latin lover Florindo (Jesse J. Perez, quaking as if sexual urges turned men into flan) secures his useless services, as does fetching Beatrice (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), disguised as a man because — well, really, just because.
The character is fortunately named, since it allows the divine Perez to pronounce it as if it were a one-word aria. “Bay-ahhhh-Treeeee-Chay,” he croons.
Bayes’s achievement is, in apt commedia fashion, to have helped each of his actors hone a keenly etched persona. A result is that the payoffs remain just as bountiful when Epp’s Truffaldino disappears behind the flimsy curtain that Bayes and Day anchor at mid-stage. “Servant’s” comic universe is utterly permeable; we can see actors in the wings and the stagehands holding butterflies on strings. The production cleverly asks the audience to develop its own definition of surprise.
And it confidently leaves to the accomplished acting cadre the job of delivering the comic payload. Humorously cloaked by costume designer Valerie Therese Bart, the cast offers up one exquisitely timed barrage after another. (The traditional masks some actors wear are by Renzo Antonello.) As dotty old Pantalone, Allen Gilmore is a risible bundle of tics, shuffles and squeaks; Liz Wisan brings to bashful maid Smeraldina a rewarding backbone; Danielle Brooks turns preening bride Clarice into a walking tantrum in bubble-gum pink ruffles, and, as Il Dottore, Don Darryl Rivera executes a cartoonish gallery of gestures suggesting that he could have been one of the dancing pieces of substantial furniture in “Beauty and the Beast.”
You’ll come up with your own pop-cultural associations in the production’s panoply of screwball allusions. But whether you get more of your jollies from Harlequin, or from Moe, Larry and Curly, you’ll find this “Servant” tailored to your laughter-inducing specs.
The Servant of Two Masters
by Carlo Goldoni, adapted by Constance Congdon, from Christina Sibul’s translation. Directed by Christopher Bayes. Set, Katherine Akiko Day; costumes, Valerie Therese Bart; lighting, Chuan-Chi Chan; fight director, Rick Sordelet; With Andy Grotelueschen, Liam Craig, Paul Edward Hope, Paul Reisman. About 2½ hours. Through June 24 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122 or www.shakespearetheatre.org.