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Washington, D.C., is the perfect backdrop for a commedia dell’arte production, which requires the actors to wear masks, keep their identity fluid and wreak havoc.
Commedia dell’arte translates to the “comedy of craft” or “comedy of skills.” It is a highly theatrical school of theater performed by those who are slaves to the craft of comedy and wield improvisational skills like weapons. This genre will not be kind to the amateur actor. It demands that every performer parry and volley with his co-stars and audience under many different circumstances. This type of comedy tends toward the satirical, bawdy, insane, convoluted and whimsically fun.
The current production of Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters” — up now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and extended through July 8 — is perfectly, cleverly, wonderfully insane.
The show opens in Italian, in a play within a play. A trunk is opened and suddenly little lights — Fireflies? Perhaps. Magic? Definitely. — fly and float across the stage. The audience is transported to the world of the play.
The plot of this show is honestly kind of beside the point, but it swirls around Truffaldino (Steven Epp), the trickster servant who is hungry from the beginning of the play to the conclusion.
Truffaldino’s genius scheme to get fed twice is to serve two masters, thereby eventually getting to eat double the vittles.
Pretty quickly, however, the audience knows what Truffaldino doesn’t: No one can serve two masters — and certainly no one can serve them well.
The only thing that doubles for Truffaldino is trouble.
In his attempts to try to serve the two masters, the clownish servant screws up everything. When he tries to meet the demands of one master, Beatrice (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), while balancing — at times literally — the demands of the other, Florindo (Jesse J. Perez), nothing goes right and, eventually, his scheme is unveiled.
Along the way, however, Truffaldino unwittingly helps love happen, hearts break, hearts mend. He makes confusion the center of this world. He also juggles, while badly serving dinners.
Truffaldino’s self-inflicted Catch-22 is a rather delightful, comic parallel to American political theater. After all, the consistent question for lawmakers and their political parties is how to reconcile the never-ending quest to be elected to public office while attempting to govern effectively and responsibly.
The shenanigans that ensue on the political stage are, at times, no less absurd then those that will take place on the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s stage over the next month. Though, it should be acknowledged, the consequences are often more dire.
This production of “The Servant of Two Masters,” adapted by Constance Congdon and directed by Christopher Bayes, had its first sold-out run at the Yale Repertory Theatre during the 2009-2010 season, before traveling across the country to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
For each community, Bayes and his cast of stellar actors hone the humor, their slapstick, so the improv will resonate and remain fresh nightly.
During this Washington run, the actors call out Congress, the Occupy movement, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the new French president, Francois Hollande. One old man with a hunched back complains about still paying off his student loans.
“I’m being filibustered out of a wife,” the unlucky servant complains at one point.
The House as One
Another treat of attending this kind of show is that anything can, might and will happen.
In fact, the night this reviewer saw the show, there was a hilarious moment of actual unrehearsed comedy. The villain Pantalone (Allen Gilmore) was moving downward, when he accidentally split his pants.
For a moment, everyone — actors, musicians, audience — stopped.
Almost at the same moment, the shock and comedy of what happened transferred through the house and the room erupted into laughter and applause. Gilmore showed the hole to the audience and to Silvio (Andy Grotelueschen), who was trying not to laugh onstage.
“I’ll pay for your therapy,” Gilmore promised. The show went on.
However, from that point, the accident became part of the world of the play. References to the split were tossed off and at least one actor exiting the stage admonished another entering to “watch your inseam.”
It was a moment when the entire theater — performers and audience — actively made comedy together. It was a moment that can’t be replayed.
At once, “The Servant of Two Masters” captured what is most special about watching live performance: the dramatic tension that comes from not really knowing what will happen next mixed with the theater’s temporal nature.
With a comedy as outrageous and fast-paced as this one, the audience — and perhaps even the actors — will never really know what’s going to happen next. And, in the end, that is the very reason to go.