The audience’s laughter was shaking the rafters at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Servant of Two Masters. Directed by Christopher Bayes, this brilliant comedy had the audience laughing until it hurt with the words of Carlo Goldoni adapted by Constance Congdon. It’s an uproarious faction of fools paraded about on the stage for the sheer purpose of gut-busting entertainment. An absurd comedy so hysterical it makes The Three Stooges look dull. With a servant out to get as many meals as his belly can hold, several romantic couples seeking to be united and reunited, greedy old men, and lots of tomfoolery this show is the circus’s big ring event; a revival of commedia dell’arte that will have audiences rolling in the aisles.
Costume Designer Valèrie Thèrèse Bart sets the show’s whimsical magical tone with her lavish and outlandish costume choices. The Zanni, the clowns of the commedia, have half masks to keep their identities well-concealed – allowing for the central conceit of mistaken identity to more easily occur. Bart creates a vibrant patchwork rainbow for Truffaldino, making him appear like a child’s ragdoll. Clarice’s frilly dress looks like an explosion of Barbie pink and a Disney nightmare; making her all the more comical every time she has a tantrum. Bart’s creative genius gives this already hilarious farce an extra ‘kick in the pants.’
Director Christopher Bayes crafts comic genius on the stage. The text of the play lends itself to a farcical physicality that Bayes then stretches out to a point of pure insanity making every moment a laugh factor. The ad-libbing and modern and pop cultural references that weave their way into the original work make this show a phenomenal masterpiece of epic uproarious proportions. Bayes ensures that the various characters, Truffaldino in particular, not only break the fourth wall but smash through it with several wrecking balls and dynamite explosives sure to leave the audience in stitches. His execution of slapstick comedy and over-dramatization are the perfect vessels to carry this whacky show to its riotous climax.
And although the text only calls for two clowns by name – the whole cast takes turns really playing up the physical comedy of the show – dabbling in slapstick, farcical reenactments and utter nonsensical whimsy that creates a spectacularly fun environment for all. The cast are frequently and spontaneously bursting into song and dance numbers that are beyond entertaining, encouraging folly, reckless behavior and naughty trysts. There are several occurrences where a word, like ‘dead’ becomes an echoed chorus, racing through the cast on stage until everyone has repeated it two or three times for added dramatic effect. And hilarious moments where one slap-to-the-face becomes a group slap to the face, and moments where textual discoveries are met with ridiculous shrieks of surprise, all snowballing into one big chaotic comedy.
One of the fantastical unique elements of this production is the way the characters constantly physicalize the textual metaphors they are speaking. This happens frequently with Brighella (Liam Craig) and is often done with overt sexual overtones. Craig has hysterical banter with Truffaldino (Steven Epp) over food – each food and its place on the table coming with a rhythmic beat, sound effect and comic gesture. Their responses burble with sexual innuendo and are made precise with impeccable comic timing – each responding perfectly to the other and often in unison.
Il Dottore (Don Darryl Rivera) and Pantalone (Allen Gilmore) play as a similarly well-matched duet; their banter exchanged in insults and witty jibes at one another. Rivera wobbles about the stage like an over-engorged weeble while Gilmore slinks about like a pile of loosely connected sticks, each using these physical elements to enhance the comedy of their characters. Gilmore’s spontaneous bursts into modern slang and phrases are outrageous and drive the level of humor to new heights throughout the production.
The slapstick physical efforts are abundant throughout the show. Silvio (Andy Grotelueschen) and Florindo (Jesse J. Perez) engage in a series of inadvertent slaps, kicks, and punches that leave them both battered and confused while leaving the audience roaring with laughter. Grotelueschen provides a melodramatic take to the innamorati role, swooning and sighing like the girl his character is in love with and then blustering about like a child who can’t have its way. Perez, dressed like a cross between Captain Morgan and Puss-in-Boots, has the most melodramatic responses of all the characters; often responding in slow motion, or letting his whole body shake about as if in the throes of a seizure when he’s meant to be trembling.
But the king of the clowns, the father of the fools is Truffaldino (Steven Epp). The interactive voice that continues to question the audience at every chance he gets, “When is this play going to start?” or “Is this really the play?” his voice is childlike and comical. Every action Epp takes is intentional, regardless of how stupid and entertaining, nothing happens by accident for this clown. He is forever in motion, frolicking about the stage with hysterical airs and perfect physical execution, especially in large group scenes. Epp is the epitome of the Zanni, a true slapstick superhero with plenty of laughs to share. His performance is second to none and explodes with giddy moments of uproarious laughter that make him the most amazing fool to ever grace the stage. A phenomenal clowning experience not be missed.
And keep your eye out for the women – Boom! Boom! Laaaaaah! Smeraldina (Liz Wisan) is the comic voice of feminism whose slaps land pretty hard against Clarice (Danielle Brooks) during their time together. Brooks and Wisan make a great servant and mistress team with their little girly gestures and pouting expressions. Beatirce (Rachel Spencer Hewitt) steals the cake, or perhaps the cock, as she parades about in a disguise that will keep you laughing from her thunderous surprise entrance to her gorgeous gown exit. These three funny females will keep you on the edge of your seats with their every mocking move.
Remember that while everything is chaos, everything is also enchanted – and that is a fact that Shakespeare Theater Company’s hysterical production of The Servant of Two Masters will not let you soon forget.
The Servant of Two Masters plays through June 24, 2012 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street NW, in Washington DC. For tickets,call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.