"Servant Serves Up Hilarious Theater
By Geary Danihy
So, Clarice was engaged to Federigo, but he was killed in a duel with Florindo (ALAS!) but now she is betrothed to Silvio. (HUZZAH!) But wait, is Florindo back from the dead? (EGADS!) No, it his sister, Beatrice, (GASP!) disguised as her dead brother, now in search of her lover, Florindo (WASN’T HE THE GUY WHO KILLED – YES, BUT…). Now enter Florindo, in search of Beatrice. (WILL THEY EVER MEET?) Neither is attended by a servant, so in steps Truffaldino, who offers to serve both Beatrice (SLAP!) and Florindo (SLAP!) in the hopes of dining off the largesse of both masters (YUM! SLURP! BURP!)
Sometimes the Yale Repertory Theater opens a trunk and pulls out a play that should best be left to the mothballs, but in the case of “The Servant of Two Masters,” energetically directed by Christopher Bayes, it has brought back to life a vehicle that sparkles and delights from the moment a cast of itinerant players bursts through a makeshift curtain and explodes onto the stage. For the next two hours or so there is non-stop song, dance and ribald hi-jinks flavored with double-entendre and topical allusions, all of which leaves the audience deliciously drained.
“Servant,” originally written by Carlo Goldoni and adapted by Constance Congdon from a translation by Christina Sibul, is an example of commedia dell’arte (or the comedy of the art of improvisation), a dramatic genre that arose in Italy in the mid-15th century. This rather riotous, loosely-plotted “theater,” which gave birth over time to such diverse genres as opera buffa and slapstick comedy, is, as is obvious in the Rep’s production, a celebration of life, love and lunacy.
Bayes, working with scenic designer Katherine Akiko Day and lighting designer Chuan-Chi Chan, has crafted a farce that is both magical and lusty. The magic is evident from the play’s opening moments, when two stage hands walk onto the stage, flashlights in hand. They pause to inspect a dusty trunk set before a sagging wooden proscenium from which hangs a ragged curtain. As one stagehand douses the stage lights, the other opens the trunk and out flutter fireflies – or are they the spirits of actors long dead? The twinkling lights fill the air as stars appear above – the past has invaded the present. The proscenium is now upright, the curtains hang proudly – behind them a dim glow expands until they curtains shimmer and shadows rise, and then…chaos.
The driving force behind the insanity that ensues is Truffaldino (an irrepressible Steven Epp), whose main goal is to be as well-fed as possible. From the moment he appears, Epp is a whirling dervish – he bows and scrapes, he poses and prances, he banters and bellyaches and bemoans his lot in life as he cons first Beatrice (the delightful Sarah Agnew) and then Florindo (Jesse J. Perez as a quintessential jack-a-dandy) to take him on as a servant, a task he performs so ineptly that the two “masters” inevitably end up beating him.
As this is going on, Clarice (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) battles with her father, Pantalone (a cunningly sycophantic Allen Gilmore) as he demands that she marry the resurrected Federigo, much to the dismay of Silvio (Andy Groteluschen) and his outraged father, Il Dottore (John Tracy Egan).
The evening is filled with swordfights and misunderstandings, misdirected letters and a wandering purse filled with a hundred ducats, multiple confusions that bedevil the characters as they seek to figure out exactly what is happening, little knowing that much of the hugger-muggery has been caused by Truffaldino, who while he seeks sustenance also has the time to fall in love with the comely servant Smeraldina (Liz Wisan).
Scene follows scene in rapid succession, with a build towards the meal much desired by Truffaldino, an event at the end of Act One that turns out to be as chaotic as it can be – dishes and food fly, sausages dangle, servants bustle and collide – the frantic goings on evoking flashes of the Marx Brothers destroying a department store, Benny Hill chasing after a bevy of buxom ladies and the Three Stooges poking, slapping and punching each other as they attempt to cook a meal.
As delightful as all of this is, there are moments when it seems just a bit overwhelming…and just a bit too drawn out. The end of the first act feels as if it should be the end of the play…so much has happened, so much energy has been expended on the stage (and consumed by the audience) that during intermission I wondered if I was really up for more of the same and, if so, could the cast get the audience, and me, back into the groove. It took several minutes into the second act for this to happen, but soon I and the rest of the audience members were drawn right back into the insanity, and glad to be there.
The cast is, across the board, outstanding, each actor maintaining just the right degree of outlandishness while at the same time playing to the audience whenever the opportunity arises. One might quibble that Grotelueschen should whine a bit less as he delivers his lines or that Wisan find a way to express her enthusiasm that doesn’t involve bouncing up and down on her toes, but on the whole the actors are able to stay true to the stock characters they are portraying while injecting each with individual vibrancy.
“The Servant of Two Masters” is a piece of theatrical history that, thanks to Bayes et al, is as entertaining today as it was when it first appeared in the mid-1700s, for regardless of how sophisticated we have (or believe we have) become, when someone gets hit in the face with a pie or slips on a banana peel, we laugh. We just can’t help ourselves; it’s in our DNA.
“The Servant of Two Masters” runs through Saturday, April 3. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org.
This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.