Editors' pick

The Servant of Two Masters


Editorial Review

Review: ‘Servant’ masters its laugh-strewn domain
By Peter Marks
Tuesday, May 22, 2012

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.

Preview: Hitting the mark by going over the top
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, May 11, 2012

The American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League are confirming what local theater fans have known for ages: Shakespeare Theatre Company, which will receive the Tony Award for regional theater in June, has serious credentials. Yet the group's next show, "The Servant of Two Masters," emphasizes play - as in recess-time clowning, with a childlike surplus of emotion set to the spirited sounds of an onstage band.

Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century farce follows Truffaldino, a minion who tries to double his earnings by working for two bosses. Things don't go as planned, of course. Mistaken identities and missed connections lead to all manner of tomfoolery. (The buzzed-about Tony-nominated play "One Man, Two Guvnors" also happens to be based on Goldoni's work.)

What Brooklyn-based director Christopher Bayes likes most about the commedia dell'arte rendition adapted by Constance Congdon, complete with high-pitched delivery and masked actors, may be its possibilities for adding on-the-fly laughs.

"It's a weird thing to say, but it's not a great play. It's not. As literature, it's nothing. It's super boring," Bayes says. "But what it is is a kind of platform or a template for virtuosic comic acting. . . . You sort of see the skeleton of it, but as soon as you unleash the actors on it - actors who know how to do it - it's hilarious and so fun."

Most of the cast from the show's well-received 2010 run at the Yale Repertory Theater, which New York Times writer Sylviane Gold termed magical and inspired, is returning. Truffaldino will be played by Steven Epp, who was co-artistic director of another Tony-winning regional company, the now defunct physical-comedy troupe Theatre de la Jeune Lune.

In part, the production is about giving the power back to actors, letting those onstage dictate the audience's experience. During rehearsals, the cast becomes a group of comedic juggernauts, stopping at nothing to transform amusing moments into hilarious ones. It's probably helpful, then, that both actors and director seem to lack an off switch.

At a recent rehearsal, the tweaks were constant. Andy Grotelueschen as Silvio added a hip pop and bare belly to a musical number, while Allen Gilmore as Pantalone weighed the comedic effects of reenacting blood spurts with the mimicry of a sprinkler, complete with pht-pht-phting sound effects. This scenario might appear to some directors like a mutiny, but Bayes seems to revel in it and notes that more structured comedies make him "cranky."

"I love chaos. I love the anarchy of that. I actually build as much of that into it as I possibly can," he says. The actors "are going to come up with more interesting things than I can think up in my apartment."

Instead, Bayes sees his job as modulating the rhythm and tone of the work. One important note is that excessive theatricality should not spell camp, especially since occasional serious moments - including an operatic heartsick lamentation - are supposed to be just as striking as jolly ones.

"It's just not one long yawp," he says. "That it can go into a red-zone place for a moment for a character, who's feeling something deeply or who's overcome by passion, is fantastic. And all of a sudden you get to a different level of play."

But understanding the over-the-top characters involves unlearning some of our earliest lessons. The spectrum of emotions onstage reflects a childlike range, from giddy joy to tantrum-throwing rage.

"There's a type of socialization that makes us quieter, that makes us more polite, because it's easier for other people to deal with us if we're less, in a way," Bayes says. "It's easier for everybody else if I don't make a fuss, if I'm not freaking out about 'No, I ordered it this way. Come on!' and stand up in a restaurant and make a scene. But how exciting can that be, that moment?"