‘Tis Better To Serve — Twice — At ArtsEmerson
BOSTON — Is it possible to serve two people at the same time? Well you can, but not without a whole lot of comedic trouble, particularly if you’re the protagonist of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century commedia dell’arte classic, “The Servant of Two Masters.” And you can if you’re Steven Epp, the gifted comedian we used to see on a regular basis here.
How he returned to the Paramount Theatre with the Yale Repertory Theatre (through Feb. 10) is almost as complicated as the Goldoni plot. Epp plays Truffaldino, a servant who decides he can double his income and food intake if he goes to work for two masters, one of whom is a woman disguised as her dead brother. The other is her lover, neither of whom knows of the other’s presence in town. The lover also killed her brother, but not a big deal. No master of multitasking, Truffaldino gets into as much trouble as Larry David at a sensitivity training session, as he tries to satisfy competing interests.
Epp, meanwhile, used to come to the American Repertory Theater under Robert Woodruff and Rob Orchard, as a member of the delightful Theatre de la Jeune Lune, where director Christopher Bayes also worked. That company went out of business and the A.R.T. switched gears, parting company with Orchard along the way. So now that Orchard is heading ArtsEmerson, it was only natural to bring Epp and Bayes back to town. (We’ll spare you the whole history of Orchard, Yale Rep and A.R.T.
As the current production of “Servant” uses contemporary, site-specific references, there’s a lot of ribbing of Diane Paulus’s new direction, as when one of the characters says, “This isn’t a musical. We’re not the A.R.T.” And the secret word to get out of trouble is “Pippin.”
But the topical references do not a contemporary production make, unlike “One Man, Two Guvnors,” the hit adaptation that moved from England’s National Theatre to Broadway. This production stays true to the 18th century costuming and bare staging (for the most part), with contemporary references to Scott Brown and Route 495 thrown in for good measure – if sometimes the measure is a bit forced.
Also, it has to be said that while “One Man” was always amusing and often hilarious, this one is always amusing but never hilarious. But then it doesn’t really try to be. For better or worse, Bayes and Epp are not after madcap humor, superspeed pacing, and sidesplitting acting.
They and the rest of the cast, which includes an excellent two-person band, are plugging in to a historical rather than hysterical mode of stagecraft, at which they’re completely successful. Epp looks for solace in an empty seat in the front row and steals the young woman’s pocket book on his way back to the stage. Truffaldino and many of the other characters are masked throughout, adding more distance to the way we usually relate to actors. He also has a way of delivering a line that makes him not quite a representational figure, but not an abstract one either. Although he has a completely different style, it’s reminiscent of the way Christopher Walken can take over a stage with body language and line delivery that seem alien yet perfect.
The rest of the cast falls right into time and place with Epp, improvising here, doing a little schtick there. My favorite among them was Allen Gilmore as Pantalone, father to a woman caught between two suitors, who throws some contemporary dance moves into the mix.
Much of the humor rests in how they react to each other’s moves. David Dower rightly compares them to an improvisational jazz ensemble in his program notes. The main fun, of course, is watching the characters getting into and wheedling out of trouble, at every turn in the play.
To which we can only join them in saying, “Pippin!”
Here’s an enjoyable rehearsal video: