Surveying the stage chaos that he himself has triggered, the clown Truffaldino steps out and asks, "Is this really the play?" Or is it actor Steven Epp who is asking the question? The membrane between character and performer thins out in "The Servant of Two Masters," which Epp and his mates send up with confident irreverence in a Yale Repertory Theatre production being presented by the Guthrie.
Epp's question -- and admittedly, I'm reading more into it than he intended -- gets at the aesthetic approach to this 18th-century work by Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, adapted by Constance Congdon with further work by Epp and director Christopher Bayes.
To call this production an adaptation, though, is akin to calling a skeleton a person. The cast dances on the bare bones of Goldoni's story -- using the plot more as a road map to some zany destination -- and if the staging cracks a few ribs with its commedia dell'arte stomp, so much the better. From the opening moment, when a starry canopy is flung into the dark stage firmament, this show constantly reveals invention -- the imaginative plunge into fearless stagecraft and complete trust in the performer's creativity. In the bargain, Bayes accomplishes true art, masquerading as mindless comedy.
If you must know, the story involves star-crossed lovers, hidden identities, bumbling fools and overblown egos. Epp's Truffaldino gets himself hired as servant for two masters who are lovers unaware that each is in Venice. Consequently he plays a key role in manipulating affairs toward a happy ending.
Epp stirs this confection with his spontaneous and crazy versatility. He is indeed the "innocent" open to every impulse -- the child filled with glee by an audience. Could he edit himself? Yes.
Allen Gilmore's Pantalone, strutting like a peacock, is similarly built on the ridiculous fresh cream of physical dexterity and hammy abandon. Liam Craig garnishes his Brighella with a dash of Borscht Belt, and Sarah Agnew goes straight as Beatrice, playing foil for the others with the greatest of ease. Adina Verson is notable as she pierces the foolishness with the occasional gorgeous song. Only Chivas Michael tries too hard for laughs.
The Yale staging -- with musicians Carolyn Boulay and Aaron Halva lubricating the action -- fills the Guthrie auditorium with charm. The crumbling proscenium arch, a ragged curtain strung across a wire and a miniature village provide just enough set design from Katherine Akiko Day, given the gaudy costumes by Valérie Thérèse Bart.
Bayes swirls magic, legerdemain and craziness into a production that takes its cue from the spirit of Goldoni's work rather than the letter of the script. Yes, this is the play.
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