Since they are performing a commedia dell’arte classic, any cast of “The Servant of Two Masters’’ has a license to chew the scenery.
I am happy to report that in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Carlo Goldoni’s comedy now at the Paramount Center Mainstage, one performer after another abuses that license relentlessly. The result is an uproarious, unapologetically lowbrow, compulsively enjoyable excursion into the outer realms of farce.
This production of “Servant of Two Masters,’’ directed by Christopher Bayes and presented by ArtsEmerson, gets to have its cake and eat it, too (a prospect that would greatly appeal to Truffaldino, the perpetually hungry servant of the title, wonderfully played by Steven Epp). The production unleashes the broadly exaggerated, over-the-top performing style of its centuries-old theatrical form (Goldoni first wrote it in 1745 and revised it in 1753) while also throwing out one modern-day (and often local) reference after another.
The American Repertory Theater’s “Pippin’’ is repeatedly turned into a punchline, and there are also throwaway allusions to “those poor Patriots,’’ the Green Line, Scott Brown, Paul Revere, Honey Boo-Boo, “Les Miserables,’’ “Cheers,’’ “Sister Act’’ (playing next door to the Paramount, at the Boston Opera House), “Jersey Boys,’’ “The Music Man,’’ the debt ceiling, “Sanford and Son,’’ “The Carol Burnett Show,’’ “50 Shades of Grey,’’ and on and on.
Do I hear you asking about the plot? Well, it involves Truffaldino’s scheme to double his salary, and theoretically the number of meals he’ll be entitled to, by signing up to work for two masters rather than just one.
The challenge he then faces is to keep the two masters from finding out about each other. There is also the matter of how Truffaldino will ever work up the courage to declare his love for the maidservant Smeraldina (Liz Wisan). Yet our hero is ever sanguine about the obstacles in his path: “When God closes the door, he makes lemonade,’’ Truffaldino observes sagely.
Other complications abound, though. The fair Clarice (Adina Verson) is in love with the sort-of-dashing-but-mostly-craven Silvio (Chivas Michael), but Clarice’s father, Pantalone (Allen Gilmore) is determined that she shall marry Federigo instead. However, Federigo is (gasp!) not a man at all, but is none other than Beatrice (Sarah Agnew), the lost beloved of the sword-wielding, hair-tossing Florindo (Randy Reyes, hilarious).
As it happens, Florindo and Beatrice (disguised as her dead brother Federigo) are Truffaldino’s two masters, so perhaps you see the difficulty.
Or perhaps you don’t. It doesn’t matter, because the point is to sit back and enjoy yourself while Bayes’s immensely talented cast turns each scene into a steadily escalating spiral of absurdity while channeling the spirit of improvisation that has traditionally been part of commedia dell’arte.
“Servant of Two Masters’’ relies heavily on a host of commedia trademarks, from slapstick to sight gags to bouncy music (performed onstage by Carolyn Boulay and Aaron Halva, whose timing is as unerring as that of the actors).
Katherine Akiko Day’s set is dominated by a huge blue sky backdrop and a curtained arch that acts as a miniproscenium.
Truffaldino keeps calling attention to stage artifice (those inordinately loud offstage crashes, for instance) and to the aimlessness of the story. “Is this really the play? . . . When is the play going to start?’’ he asks.
One of the more startling surprises of last year’s Tony wards was James Corden’s win as best actor in a play for his knockabout portrayal of a beleaguered manservant in “One Man, Two Guvnors,’’ beating out Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in “Death of a Salesman.’’
A British import, “One Man, Two Guvnors’’ was a modernized adaptation of “The Servant of Two Masters.’’ Apart from introducing Americans to the human dynamo that is Corden, “One Man’’ reminded theatergoers how much comic juice can still be wrung from the tradition of commedia dell’arte.
For another entertaining reminder, check out the original at the Paramount.