Right around grade school we’re reminded that kids are intelligent in different ways. Some will grow up to be great mathematicians, others great diplomats or chefs. And the few hanging out by the costume chest banging on pots and pans just might show up onstage at The Shakespeare Theatre.
It’s no slight to say that the ten-actor troupe comprising The Servant of Two Masters act like children. In fact, they unbottle their most primal, outsized emotions with such smarts and skill that it’s hard to not flash-back to the days of recess, when you really should have been playing with these kids more. The crisp, joyous heights at which they perform this adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 play, and the breakneck speed at which it’s done, will set your heart racing and your brain humming.
Under the incredibly deft direction of Christopher Bayes, this cast leaps over every pitfall often suffered by performers of commedia dell’arte, the 16th century Italian theatre tradition that became the bedrock for modern sketch comedy. In commedia, actors play to type — the miserly old man, say, or the nimble witty jester. Add a tradition of masks on top of the tomfoolery, and it’s all too easy to play it broad for the nyuk-nyuks.
But no comic precision is lost here. For over two hours, the actors — led by the incomparable Steven Epp — burn thousands of calories, sailing merrily from scene to scene full of pitter-patter dialogue, slapstick comedy, and generous dollops of ad lib, all fueled by the sort of emotional extremes we were learning to suppress around the age we started tying our own shoes.
Bayes and the gang bring such knock-your-socks-off energy that it’s no surprise to see some best laid plans come artfully untied. Epp plays the servant Truffaldino — a variation on commedia’s Harlequin character — who whips up a recipe to solve his chronic hunger pangs: work for two masters at the same time, thereby doubling his salary. Epp plays his lovable dope as both slack-jawed and keen-eyed, a mostly-idiot savant who irritates everybody and (spoiler alert) harms nobody. From scene to scene he alternates between the moron and the straight man, laughing like the Cowardly Lion but hitting back like Groucho Marx. He’s a perpetual motion machine, both victim and instigator, and Epp plays him with such uniquely loose-limbed specificity that you immediately believe both sides of him, even in the moments that see him smacked by the same quips and stunts pulled earlier… by himself.
He’s well-matched by his co-stars — many of whom appeared together with Epp in a sold-out run at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2010, also directed by Bayes — and all of whom are his equal in physical and vocal dexterity. Allen Gilmore chews up his Pantalone character with squawkish bravado. As Beatrice and Florindo, the aforementioned two masters, Rachel Spencer Hewitt and Jesse J. Perez mix a splash of buffoonery with a spike of dry wit, each holding their ground and gathering charm. And Andy Grotelueschen brings the petulant boy-suitor Silvio to life on a wave of bubbling pubescence, sliding further up and down the vocal register the angrier he gets.
Truffaldino’s shoddy plans topple. Identities get mixed. Luggage gets rummaged, food goes flying, and people get konked on the head. That last one comes with a satisfying “whack” sound effect from onstage musicians Chris Curtis and Aaron Halva, who also play violin, accordion, and drums. The live music helps to push the show along, but also provides a few great moments of interaction between the actors and the musicians.
“When is the play gonna start?” gripes Truffaldino, who more than once accidentally shuts the building’s power off. Are these meta-gags, these self-aware little punchlines about performance, part of the script? Hard to tell, since the script was written by Goldoni, translated by Christina Sibul, adapted by Constance Congdon, then taken apart and mud-pied back together by these performers (under Bayes’s supervision, naturally).
Throwaway jokes about everything from “Leave It To Beaver” to the Occupy Movement find their way in here, flung in the air for only a moment. Many of them are funny. A few — like a sudden diatribe on the War on Women from servant girl Smeraldina (Liz Wisen) — get rounds of applause. And all of it, down to each tiny beat, is on-purpose and spot-on.
The top of the second half, post-intermission, provides a touching, quiet look at Truffaldino and Smeraldina together. It’s low-key by comparison (no one is shouting) and perhaps only then does some mild motion sickness catch up with you.
The Servant of Two Masters isn’t without its overly shrill moments, and some bits drive directly into each other without room to breathe, like a pile-up on the expressway. Bayes might also consider excising a few of the extra jokey references to DC, which aren’t good enough to matter.
But the show throughout is finely tuned and divinely funny. Charmingly vulgar, hugely aerobic, and strewn with nifty low-key tricks of light and sound, it just goes to show that some pieces pulled from the costume chest will always fit. A good show may portray kids, but a great show can awaken, with a wink and a poke, the child in all of us.
The Shakespeare Theatre production of The Servant of Two Masters is onstage thru June 24, 2012 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW Washington, DC .
The Servant of Two Masters
written by Carlo Goldoni, adapted by Constance Congdon
directed by Christopher Bayes
produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 2 hrs 15 min with an intermission
- Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
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