‘The Servant of Two Masters’ Serves up Laughs

“The Servant of Two Masters” is aptly titled—it overextends in its desire to embrace two different genres of dramatic expression, and, like its title character, risks not entirely satisfying either group. This new adaptation, performed by the Yale Repertory Theatre and directed by Christopher Bayes, attempts to satisfy the parameters of traditional commedia dell’arte and also relate to a contemporary crowd. The production, which plays at the Paramount Center Mainstage through Sunday, is at times confusing; the moments when the actors puncture the commedia with meta-commentary and modern jokes hamper the overall aesthetic.

Traditionally, actors in commedia dell’arte play stock types, a goal that “The Servant” achieves quite well. Beatrice (Sarah Agnew) disguises herself as her dead brother and orders her servant Truffaldino (Steven Epp) to handle her belongings when Beatrice’s lover Florindo (Randy Reyes) arrives in town. Truffaldino offers to serve Florindo as well and meddles in both his masters’ dealings. Predictably, Truffaldino fails to get away with secretly serving both masters at the same time but still wins the heart of the servant girl Smeraldina (Liz Wisan).

If some of the comedy succeeds in this play, it is because the actors each embody their type with a delightful generosity of body language. Like a demented array of Pez dispensers, they lean back their furiously bobbing heads every so often and open their mouths to sing pseudo-opera or roar replies to other characters. Consistent with the commedia, each character has a physical tic that recurs each time he or she enters the stage. As Florindo,  Reyes holds his arms out, trembling all over, each time he is overcome by emotion. Wisan, as Smeraldina, is hilariously gung-ho, and in her signature gesture she lifts her arms vigorously and pumps them over her head. Epp, as Truffaldino, frequently stumbles or drops important papers.

However, the play’s modern humor was largely hit-or-miss. The modern jokes that the actors improvised into the script sacrifice the comic unity of the dell’arte. In a running gag, Epp casts himself as a starving Boston graduate student, frequently making asides like, “I’m working on my doctoral dissertation,” and, “You can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting a Ph.D.” He also wonders—perhaps a little too often—about being an actor in the play; several times he asks, “Seriously, when is the play going to begin?” or, “Is that the exit door?” Comments like these bring  Truffaldino out of the plot and presents him as simply a hapless actor on the stage.

However, to clear up any doubts about the intended comedy, many of the actions onstage are accompanied by musical cues. Camped on the edge of the stage, a violinist and an accordionist play melodramatic ditties when a character appears or some crisis occurs to herald an ironic or whimsical tone. Intimate, less ironic music—or no music at all—accompanies Truffaldino’s more serious moments. At the end of the play, when Truffaldino has been found out, he can only stare at the empty stage without musical accompaniment or even human voice. The music serves to orient the humor, and was effective in tone-setting, more tastefully comic than the comparatively crude throwaways like Epp’s quippy one-liners.

The set, designed by Katherine Akiko Day, includes a curtain backdrop painted with clouds. At the end of the play, Truffaldino accidentally pulls down the backdrop, leaving a bare wall that reveals the actors to be just performers in a play. It is an oddly serious conclusion to a play so invested in traditional commedia. After Truffaldino pulls down the curtain, the resulting aesthetic seems to fall short of the intended emotion. This and other deviations from dell’arte such as the modern jokes and meta-commentary are ultimately incongruous with its more traditional comic delivery. There is something perhaps too precious about the final scene, when the backdrop comes down and lovers Truffaldino and Smeraldina disappear into the night as if in a fairy tale.

Less gratifying in its tooth-grinding, modern-day humor and at times irritatingly insistent on  employing modern-day humor, “The Servant” is otherwise wonderfully acted, and it succeeds in its better moments through its focus on traditional comic tropes.

—Staff writer Victoria Zhuang can be reached at vzhuang@college.harvard.edu.

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