The Servant of Two Masters at Yale Rep
-- Still a Delight Three Centuries Later
By Amy J. Barry
Let's all be jolly
Life is but a party
A never-ending ball…
…or at least for a few hours it is, if you’re in the audience of Yale Repertory Theatre’s current production of The Servant of Two Masters—which opens with the ensemble singing this spirited song.
If you were at all unclear of the derivation of the phrase slapstick (or shtick), you will have no doubt after seeing this winsome physical comedy in which there’s an awful lot of stick slapping, not to mention a nonstop, precisely timed barrage of flying rubber chickens, bread puddings, and delightfully ditzy dialogue.
Written in the mid-1700s by Carlo Goldoni, this stellar example of commedia dell’ arte, so popular in Europe at the time, has been translated from the Italian, adapted by Constance Congdon—who peppered the original script with contemporary references for an extra kick, and further shaped and spun by director Christopher Bayes into a hilarious and exquisite escape from 21st-century reality.
Three centuries later, it’s amazing that the humor is still so fresh and accessible—but it makes perfect sense since commedia dell’arte is the basis of so much of today’s comedy from the Marx Brothers to Jerry Lewis to The Simpsons.
A plot jam-packed with misunderstandings and mistaken identities, broken engagements, lovers reunited, envy, intrigue and power plays, it’s hard to keep up with the storyline, but it’s really not necessary because it’s so laugh outloud funny, you don’t really care.
At the center of this zany ensemble cast—whose every word and gesture is so carefully choreographed they never miss a beat—is Truffaldino (Steven Epp), the simple-minded servant. The downtrodden Truffaldino cooks up a scheme to double both his wages and meals by serving two masters at once (unbeknownst to them). Epp performs at a fevered pitch from start to finish, articulating every paranoid and absurd thought that pops into his head in an endless stream of gibberish.
At the same time, all goes haywire when Clarice (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who is engaged to be married to Silvio (Andy Grotelueschen) finds out that Florindo (Jesse J. Perez), the man to whom she was originally betrothed —she was told he’d been killed in a duel)—comes back to claim her, but is really his sister Beatrice (Sarah Agnew) disguised as a man, seeking her brother’s fortune.
Randolph is hysterical, dressed like a frilly pink cupcake, alternating between a jive-talking, streetwise teenager and a sobbing little girl collapsing into a sea of petticoats. She also has a lovely voice, displayed in an operatic duet with Liz Wisan, who plays her maid Smeraldina—another nutty and notable performance.
Allen Gilmore must be mentioned as the penny-pinching Pantalone, who literally can’t part with his money—it’s a hoot watching him try with all his might to disengage from a bag of coins he’s holding in his hand.
Perez is suitably full of himself; constantly striking melodramatic poses as the macho Florindo.
Agnew as the duplicitous Beatrice is great for un-comic relief. Being, for the most part, a straightman—and woman—among a crowd of crazies—somehow makes her performance very funny.
On-stage musicians Christopher Curtis, Aaron Halva, and Nathan A. Roberts perfectly punctuate the physical comedy with percussive pops and swooning strings. Katherine Akiko Day’s stage-within-a-stage against a backdrop of puffy clouds in a blue sky, framed by the crumbling walls of an ancient Venice theater; Chuan-Chi Chan’s twinkling, magical lights; and Valerie Therese Bart’s marvelous masks and outrageous colorful costumes complete the enchanting picture.
The show runs almost 2 ½ hours with intermission –a bit long to be banged over the head with endless gags and burlesque blunders. But subtlety is not the point of this play—eliciting belly laughs is…and that it does.
The Servant of Two Masters continues at Yale Rep’s University Theatre, 222 York St., (New Haven, through April 3. Call the box office for tickets: 203-432-1234 or online at www.yalerep.org <http://www.yalerep.org> .
This review was published in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers and online Zip06.com, March 31, 2010