Theatre for a New Audience has on its hands its best production in years with The Servant of Two Masters, a much-welcomed commedia salve for the trauma of November 8. Carlo Goldoni’s madcap play has Truffaldino (Steven Epp) attempting to surreptitiously earn two salaries, the first from Beatrice (Liz Wisan), disguised as her slain brother Rasponi, the second from Florindo (Orlando Pabotoy), Beatrice’s lover and the murderer of Rasponi. Needless to say, the action soon becomes pandemonium, and much is made of mistaken identities, misdelivered letters, and matching luggage. In a moment characteristic of The Servant of Two Masters as a whole, Truffaldino turns to the audience after a series of backstage crashes and says, “You know, there’s a whole bunch of pots and pans back there that everyone keeps tripping over.”
Mr. Epp’s performance is utterly roof-shattering. Endlessly licking his chops, he minces with unbounded agility, producing an astonishing range of feeling for an actor who is wearing a mask and is thus deprived on his most powerful emotive tool: his eyes. But this is no one-man show: the entire cast is terrific. Mr. Pabotoy’s Florindo is full of humorless, hot-blooded flair, while Eugene Ma, playing Silvio, an airheaded lover caught up in Beatrice’s cross-dressing schemes, shuffles on and off the stage with the blinking gape of a lost cow.
We don’t get to see commedia very often in the United States, and for that reason alone this Servant is worth it. It is like a masked version of our vaudeville, and I was frequently reminded of its greatest screen practitioners, such as the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, but the frequent improvisation lends the production a sense of spontaneity that is impossible in film. And the jokes come as rapidly as machine-gun fire; if you don’t like one, no need to worry, since six more have been made in the time it took you to hear the first. Chances are you’ll find enough of them funny to laugh continuously for the play’s two and a half hours.
The Servant of Two Masters runs through December 4th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 2 hours 25 minutes. One intermission.