The Shakespeare Theatre’s production of The Servant of Two Masters has more in common with Second City than it does with classic Italian comedy. Like the Chicago-based sketch comedy troupe, the Shakespeare production employs the tried-and-true joke saturation method: the actors and production team energetically hurl as many gags as they can, hoping the majority of them will stick. The breadth of jokes is impressive. There are references to sex, politics, famous playwrights, 90s hip-hop, and Whitney Houston. When a cast member nails a zinger, the ensuing laughter is uproarious. Unfortunately, what happens in between those winning moments can be grating past the point of tolerance.
The original script, written by Carlo Goldoni in the mid-1700s, follows a recognizable outline. Beatrice (Rachel Spencer Hewitt) is posing as her dead brother after her lover Florindo (Jesse J. Peretz) kills him in a duel. In addition to affection, the lovers share the servant Truffaldino (Steven Epp), albeit unknowingly. Truffaldino does not think too far ahead, simply realizing that two masters results in twice the salary/food. Beatrice’s dead brother was meant to marry Clarice (Danielle Brooks), who is in love with Silvio (Andy Grotelueschen), so her incognito arrival complicates the arrangement. The respective fathers of Clarice and Silvio, played by Allen Gilmore and Don Darryl Rivera, express their subsequent frustrations by screaming a lot.
Director Christopher Bayes is the head of physical acting for the Yale school of drama, and the performances reflect his expertise. His cast is constantly in motion, whether they’re humping the stage or impersonating a slaughtered cow. Bayes has them ape for the audience, and this “go for broke” approach is what makes the production so exasperating.
Towards the end of the first act, for example, there is a protracted sequence where Truffaldino and a chef (Liam Craig) discuss the best way to lay out a meal. Zany sound effects accompany each item on the menu, and their rapid-fire histrionics are a poor substitute for humor. As Clarice’s father, Allen Gilmore is the most egregious offender since a lot of performance involves him screeching at the top of his lungs. The guy sitting next to me put his fingers in his ears whenever Gilmore took the stage, and I couldn’t blame him. Still, Gilmore is also responsible for the evening’s most surprising twist. During the second act, he accidentally ripped his pants in the middle of a split. This was not part of the show, and Grotelueschen ended up breaking character. The audience also laughed at this wardrobe malfunction and Gilmore improvised well, but don’t expect these moments to appear in every performance.
Not all the actors test our patience. Epp’s Truffaldino, who is in nearly every scene, is the most successful. His character is the classic fool, combining wit with idiocy, and the script supplies with meta-humor in addition to broad physical gags. By regularly breaking the fourth wall, he plays with the artifice of the stage and even mocks the audience. Similarly, Truffaldino’s love interest Smeraldina (Liz Wisan) talks about DC hypocrisy when she addresses the audience (her punch lines are safe but well-timed). For all its different approaches to comedy, pop-culture references and sex jokes are what work best. I did not expect a Snoop Dogg rhyme when I arrived at the Lansburgh, nor did I expect a surprisingly literal premature ejaculation joke.
Unlike the typical Second City production, the production values of The Servant of Two Masters are beautiful and ambitious. The costumes pay homage to classic Italian comedy; many of the actors wear masks, even though their obscured faces make it difficult to connect with the audience. The actors without masks, Hewitt in particular, need not work as hard to create a dynamic stage presence. The lighting design is also terrific, and Bayes bookends the play with two low-key romantic moments that wisely ignore the silliness of what happens in between them. High-caliber stagecraft like this only highlights how The Servant of Two Masters is surprising at its best, and downright annoying at its worst. The problem is that the ratio skews the wrong way.
The Servant of Two Masters is at the Lansburgh Theater until July 8th. Buy tickets here!