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Finding poignancy amid the slapstick in ‘The Servant of Two Masters’

Steven Epp (pictured here with Liz Wizan in a 2010 production) stars in Yale Rep’s “The Servant of Two Masters” at the Paramount Center Mainstage.

RICHARD TERMINE/FILE/2010

Steven Epp (pictured here with Liz Wizan in a 2010 production) stars in Yale Rep’s “The Servant of Two Masters” at the Paramount Center Mainstage.

Director Christopher Bayes often brings up the term “over the top’’ in rehearsal. “It is usually used to talk about bad acting, but it comes from World War I with the guys in the trenches,’’ he says. “If you go over the top, it is an act of courage. If you don’t, there is no chance of winning. You sit in your own mud, among other things.”

Even though his Yale Repertory Theatre production of “The Servant of Two Masters” goes over the top and beyond, both Bayes and actor Steven Epp, who plays the titular flunky, contend that there is a sense of tragedy lurking beneath the surface, like a tear running beneath the mask of a clown. In one scene, the servant, Truffaldino, bemoans his slavish fate, and in another, two women sing a lament about lost love.

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“There is a poignancy, an innocence, around the edge of this naughty little world,” Epp says. “This is particular to Chris. He is great at going irreverent and crazy and vulgar and wacko, but behind all of it is an awareness and an intelligence similar to what you find in ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘South Park.’ On the surface, it looks really stupid, but there is a sweet innocent poignancy that is always on the edges of his shows.’’

The production begins a two-week run Tuesday on the Paramount Center Mainstage, presented by ArtsEmerson. The play, written by Carlo Goldoni in 1743 and adapted, in this version, by Constance Congdon, with further adaptation by Bayes and Epp, is a classic of commedia dell’arte. A British adaptation, “One Man, Two Guvnors,” was a Broadway hit last year; its star, James Corden, walked off with a Tony Award.

“The Servant of Two Masters” has the thinnest of plots and a cast of stock characters. The hungry Truffaldino indentures himself to two masters so that he can get paid twice — and eat twice. Two pairs of crisscrossed lovers part and come together again. The centerpiece is the famous kitchen scene, in which all sorts of food and cookware go flying through the air. It’s slapstick. It’s silly. And it’s supposed to jiggle your funny bone, if not your brain.

“You come to the theater and get a laugh about something that’s really stupid,’’ Bayes says. “We’re so stupid, but we’re stupid in a really smart way. I am proud of it.”

The atmosphere is one of playful pandemonium, but the chaos is carefully choreographed and controlled. “The rhythms are very precise,’’ says Bayes, who is also head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama. “It can’t just go ‘Bang.’ It has to go ‘Bang, bang, clickety-bang, bangety- boom.’ ’’ The form is both finely crafted and open to improvisation. The actors are free to add topical and local references, making the production current and classical at the same time.

‘It’s a terrifying high-wire act. You’re always feeling a little naked.’

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There is no pretense here. The goal is to strip theater down to its essence, to entertain. “It’s not a particularly great play as literature,’’ Bayes says. “It’s built for a kind of bawdy playfulness that is deeply theatrical and actor-centered. It has a metatheatrical quality to it that reminds us we are sitting in the dark watching people jump around onstage. It’s such a celebration of the theater itself.’’

Epp likens the experience to an impromptu street performance. “It is beautiful stage magic, and it’s all very simple,’’ he says. “There is a sense that you are on a plank stage in a city square.”

The actor and director have worked together off and on since they started their careers with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the Tony-winning Minneapolis troupe that disbanded in 2008. In fact, most of the ensemble members have worked together before, either with Jeune Lune or in other productions, and they share the same style and language. Bayes and Epp say they will be working together again at Yale Rep next season in a production of Dario Fo’s “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.”

Epp is known to local audiences for several productions Jeune Lune presented at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, most notably for the title role in Moliere’s “The Miser” in 2004. In theater circles, he is widely regarded as a master of commedia. The New York Times said his Truffaldino combines “the cheerful hostility of Groucho Marx, the winsomeness of Tommy Smothers, and the stupidity of Homer Simpson.”

While the production may look like frothy slapstick and shenanigans, Epp says it is actually harder to perform comedy than tragedy. That’s because it’s dangerous. “It’s a terrifying high-wire act. You’re always feeling a little naked,” he says. The actors put themselves out there with outrageous antics, and some nights, certain jokes fall flat, depending on the audience. “It happens, and it’s crushing,’’ he says. “It eats a little bit of your soul.”

The production’s combination of whimsy and woe struck a chord with ArtsEmerson executive director Robert J. Orchard. Prior to heading up the ambitious presenting schedule at ArtsEmerson, Orchard spent 30 years as managing director and then executive director of the ART. Under the artistic direction of Robert Brustein, who retired in 2002, ART frequently produced commedia; his successor, Robert Woodruff, presented several Jeune Lune productions. Since ART has gone in a different direction under artistic director Diane Paulus, this particular brand of comedy has been largely missing from local theaters. “I am bringing work to these stages that wouldn’t land on any other stage in Boston,” Orchard says. “I see it as amplifying the cultural choices. Of course, some of that comes from relationships with artists we worked with at ART, and this is an example of that.”

And Orchard knew he wanted to bring the show to Boston during the doldrums of winter. The sky is gray. The air is bitter. The post-holiday blahs have descended, and New Year’s resolutions have already been broken. What better time to laugh at a bunch of clowns throwing turkeys and dropping groan-out-loud innuendos?

“It’s joyous, and it’s effervescent, and it’s buoyant and smart and delightful,’’ he says.

This production also traveled to Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company and to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where it just wrapped up a seven-week run. James Bundy, artistic director of Yale Rep and dean of the Yale School of Drama, says that the tour has certainly enhanced the profile of both the school and the theater, but it hasn’t been a financial boon. “It offsets some of the original costs of production and continues to support the artists,’’ he says. The piece, he contends, lends itself to traveling because, unlike Broadway hits produced everywhere, this production depends entirely on the people who created it. “You get the feeling that you are in the presence of something that can only be seen here and now with these people onstage,’’ he says. He points out that Peter Salovey, then provost and now soon-to-be president of Yale University, saw the show twice in the same week.

The audience plays a significant role. The production is not interactive, per se, but the actors acknowledge the folks in the seats. “They are a visceral part of the equation,” Epp says, pointing out that the actors work off the energy in the room and can tell whether it’s a crowd ready to roll in the aisles or a group that is “above it all.”

Bayes adds a warning: “Watch out if you’re coming in late. Or if you cough or have a funny laugh or have to get up in the middle.” In the past, he has requested that the production not begin with the usual admonition to turn off cellphones. “There haven’t been any phones going off yet, but if one does,” he says, “man, we are going to get you.’’

At times, the director sounds as gleeful as a schoolboy with a whoopee cushion. “Look at what we get to do for a living. We throw turkeys. We throw pots and pans that bounce against the wall,’’ Bayes says. “This is my job, and it is so awesome.”

Patti Hartigan can be reached at pattihartigan@gmail.com.
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