That's its appeal. Carlo Goldoni's "The Servant of Two Masters," written in 1743, is based on commedia dell'arte, which was an improvised art designed to entertain. What Goldoni did was take commedia characters and place them within a conventional script. And director Christopher Bayes has taken Constance Congdon's adaptation of "Servant" to produce a modern take on Goldoni's formula, using enough references to contemporary times to make it sound as though the actors are improvising.
The story centers on the traditional commedia figures: Truffaldino, the clumsy but faithful valet (Steven Epp); Brighella, an enterprising servant (Liam Craig); Smeraldina, a feisty servant girl (Liz Wisan); the old Pantalone (Allen Gilmore); the educated but ignorant Dottore (Don Darryl Rivera); and the lovers, Beatrice (Rachel Spencer Hewitt) and Florindo (Jesse J. Perez), Clarice (Danielle Brooks) and Silvio (Andy Grotelueschen).
At the beginning of "Servant," Beatrice comes to Venice disguised as her deceased brother looking for her lover, Florindo. Truffaldino agrees to be her servant. Shortly thereafter, he agrees to be the servant of Florindo as well, in order to get twice the money. Epp is a first-class comedian, and he brilliantly captures all the absurdity of his position in a deadpan manner, as he is sent everywhere on missions "for your master."
|'The Servant of Two Masters'|
|Where: The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW|
|When: Through June 24|
|Info: $39 to $95; 202-547-1122; shakespearetheatre.org|
Hewitt is commanding as Beatrice, and Perez charms with his exaggerated sauntering and strutting. Gilmore is hilarious as the greedy Pantalone. Brooks delightfully epitomizes the spoiled and childish Clarice. Craig is particularly funny in a scene with Truffaldino as he describes every detail of a feast he will prepare for Truffaldino's masters, including the graphic noises that will be heard from participating livestock.
Classical music and opera brush up against light opera, rock and hip-hop. And there is plenty of lively dancing too. Aaron Halva and Chris Curtis sit onstage accompanying the action on drums, accordian, violin, miniature piano and saw, played with a violin bow.
Katherine Akiko Day's set emphasizes the theatricality of the show. Within the proscenium arch of the Lansburgh Theatre is a smaller stage with yellow curtains, where the commedia players tell their tale.
By restoring a sense of commedia's dynamism to this "Servant," Bayes offers a look into a historical period otherwise unknown to us, and we can understand what commedia audiences may have felt: a rush of energy and wit that suggests an evening observing the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin and Abbott and Costello collaborating in one big improvisation.