Theater Review: "The Servant of Two Masters" at the Lansburgh Theatre

Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte masterpiece shines in this Shakespeare Theatre production.

By: Jane Horwitz

It's all happening at the Lansburgh Theatre, and "all" is no exaggeration in this case. The Servant of Two Masters, presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company through June 24, has everything--high hilarity, low comedy, breakneck slapstick, fine singing, a bit of dancing, and a dash of fish juggling, as well as asides that sporadically yank this mid-18th-century farce into present-day Washington.

That's part of the tradition of commedia dell'arte, born as improvisational street theater in 16th-century Italy, and from which Carlo Goldoni's play also comes. There are the outsize emotions, the comedy within a tragedy, the spoofing of the rich and powerful, and of course the stock characters: the elderly miser, the greedy doctor, the naive virgin, and the wily servant or maid.

The "servant" of the title is Truffaldino, who's played by the sublime Steven Epp. Magnificently droll in faded motley and a half mask (several of the stock characters are masked--another commedia tradition), Epp is a dream to watch. Loose-limbed, supple-voiced, and blessed with devastating comic timing, his Truffaldino sets in motion a wildly convoluted plot that's also a classic formula.

Truffaldino is starving and exhausted, having just arrived in Venice with his master (Rachel Spencer Hewitt). He's unaware that his master is actually his master's sister, Beatrice, disguised as her brother, who is in fact dead. Truffaldino, in blissful ignorance, decides he can make double wages in Venice and eat double rations if he signs on to work for a second master whom he meets by chance--the gentleman Florindo (Jesse J. Perez)--and keeps it secret. He doesn't know Florindo is actually Beatrice's fiancé, who has killed her brother in a duel. Beatrice's dead brother was betrothed to Clarice (Danielle Brooks), the silly daughter of the Venetian miser Pantalone (Allen Gilmore). Clarice has always loved Silvio (Andy Grotelueschen), son of Il Dottore/the Doctor (Don Darryl Rivera) and may now get to marry him after all, except that there's bad blood between their fathers. Clarice's maid, Smeraldina (Liz Wisan), falls for Truffaldino on sight, which figures into all the rest somehow.

Among this show's many comedic delights is the discussion of a dinner menu between Truffaldino and the innkeeper Brighella (Liam Craig). In his filthy apron, Brighella describes not only the feast he's planning, but the manner in which each meat course will be slaughtered. He and Truffaldino turn the exchange into a repetitive routine worthy of Abbott and Costello that's both horrific and hilarious.

All this unfolds on a ramshackle stage (scenic design by Katherine Akiko Day) framed by a faux-brick proscenium adorned with painted flowers. Inside that aging proscenium is a much smaller second "stage," like one a traveling troupe might set up in a piazza. It's just a wooden frame with a ratty curtain through which the actors come and go, often careening into the real Lansburgh wings accompanied by sounds of crashing pots and pans. On a corner of the stage to the audience's left sit composer/musicians Chris Curtis and Aaron Halva, who accompany the vocally gifted cast in occasional songs, even opera-style quintets. They also underline the slapstick with sound effects. The costumes, rich in baggy pants and bustiers, are by Valerie Therese Bart.

This production is the fruit of a collaboration between Epp, who was a longtime co-artistic director at Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis; his pal the director Christopher Bayes; and playwright/adaptor Constance Congdon. (Congdon worked from a translation by Christina Sibul.) They have created a gem. Bayes, by the way, was the director of "movement" for The 39 Steps on Broadway and teaches physical acting at Yale and Juilliard.

If parents think their kids of, say, 12 and older can handle some bawdy--not dirty--humor, this Servant would make a fine introduction to the whole concept of classical theater, minus the serious parts.

A new British adaptation of Goldoni's play recently arrived on Broadway. One Man, Two Guvnors updates the action to the seaside town of Brighton in the 1960s and has collected seven Tony nominations. If you plan to see it, lucky you, but don't let that deter you from catching The Servant of Two Masters here. It's simply a riot.

The Servant of Two Masters is at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre through June 24. Tickets ($39 to $95) are available through the company's website.