There is much to laugh about in Theatre for a New Audience’s (TFANA) production of Carlo Goldoni's raucously entertaining farce The Servant of Two Masters, and boy, do we laugh. Every formula for comedy is either turned on its head or played to its full predictive hilarity. And when the unpredictable moments happen—this archetype of commedia dell'arte requires a fair amount of improvisation and ad-libbing—the risk of going off-script is richly rewarded. Sobering allusions to our current political theater, and maniacally incoherent strings of dialogue chock-full of anachronism, are rendered tolerable and even enjoyable under the guise of farce. Goldoni's capering plot still holds considerable sway over modern theater: Richard Bean's adaptation of this play, One Man, Two Guvnors, was acclaimed on Broadway in 2012 and made a star of James Corden. The genre possesses enough to buoy the weary theatergoer: ostentation, levity and music. But even endless entertainment has its limits, and Goldoni's 1746 story of cross-dressing sisters and miserly fathers hangs by a silken thread.
Bayes’ version of Goldoni’s escapist fare is evinced by the fast-paced jokes, quick scene changes and the Saturday Night Live–like impulse to command laughter from the most ridiculous situations (there is a crude yet funny moment when a bag of money is compared to a well-endowed man's privates). The production also uses modern politics and pop culture for humor, with jabs at Donald Trump, Anthony Weiner, the national touring company of the musical Hamilton, and third-party voters. We even get asides and fourth-wall breaks that question the legitimacy of the play itself, meta-theater style, until we wonder—can this thing carry its own weight?
The answer is more or less a resounding “Yes,” thanks to Bayes' cleverly spliced-in moments of quiet magic and charm. The story opens in Venice, where Beatrice (Liz Wisan), garbed in the clothes of her newly deceased brother Federigo, is searching for her lover Florindo (Orlando Pabotoy), who also happens to be the one who killed her brother. Along the way, she visits her dead brother's betrothed Clarice (Adina Verson) and Clarice's father Pantalone (Allen Gilmore) to request the dowry money originally promised to her brother Federigo (keeping up?). But Silvio (Eugene Ma), who has now fallen in love with Clarice, refuses to parley with Beatrice-as-Federigo and seeks to duel with her.
Bayes' conception of the play is found in the character of Truffaldino, performed by a maniacal, masterly Steven Epp. The ever-hungry Truffaldino is Beatrice's servant but bumbles his way into the service of an unsuspecting Florindo as well. As Truffaldino tries to serve his two masters, the ensuing misunderstandings and romances (Truffaldino is smitten with Emily Young’s engaging, feisty servant Smeraldina) serve as the mere template for grander, rowdier comedy. Several members of the cast sport typical commedia dell'arte masks, half-hiding their faces from the audience, and recalling the animalism inherent in the play—Pantalone is bedecked in a feathered red headdress, and his mask is pointed toucan bill.
Epp as the ravenous Truffaldino goes to such lengths to entertain us that even his costars (especially Wisan) repeatedly break character to grin at his antics. It's as if the court jester were given the starring role in an important play, and he let it devolve into glorious chaos. Orlando Pabotoy's pompous Florindo is a study in cloak-swishing conceit—he earns the most laughs after Epp. Ma and Adina Verson are childlike in their impulses and comedic moves, as are Epp and Emily Young, whose vulgarly adolescent yearnings for each other are somehow still sweet.
At first glance, the set looks like the back of an old warehouse refurbished to suit the needs of a collegiate theater troupe. A large white curtain, hanging on a wooden post, parts in the middle to welcome the actors, but any notion of “backstage” is nixed, as the audience can see the novel movements of the players. When the lights dim, however, the magic of Katherine Akiko Day's work is revealed—suffice it to say that her bare-bones set design gives way to a miniature cutout of Venice, situating us nicely in the actors’ larger-than-life, frenetic space. Christmas-like golden light of designer Chuan-Chi Chan elevates the production from mere farce to theatrical substance. Moreover, the faerie-like, tiptoeing prettiness of Aaron Halva’s music underscores the play's inherent frivolity.
For all its improvisation and malapropisms, The Servant of Two Masters stands firmly on Epp's rollicking intelligence and the comic strengths of the cast. For the jaded theatergoer, TFANA's production provides all the things the wearied mind desires: longing, love, song, dance and the simple beauty of laughter.
TFANA’S The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni plays at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn) through Dec. 4. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. For information and tickets, visit www.tfana.org.