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

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

John Treacy Egan, Andy Grotelueschen, Da’Vine Randolph, Allen Gilmore, and Liz Wisan in The Servant of Two Masters. Photograph by Richard Termine.

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.