Many of us, if you set aside the large portion of the electorate that didn’t bother to vote, feel as if we recently went through something more like a military campaign than a political one, and whether you lost, won, or just watched, you may be ready for some R&R. At the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, Theatre for a New Audience is now offering a tonic for the troops, in the form of a piece of giddy delight called The Servant of Two Masters.
The play has been through a lot itself. Originating in 1746 as a mere scenario for a traditional commedia dell’arte presentation, crafted by Carlo Goldoni, S2M was later revised by Goldoni, formalized as a text existing on its own terms rather than as a pretext for the players. But the production at TFANA, which credits multiple adaptors, takes the play back toward improvisation, topical humor, character masks for some of the players, and other aspects of what I imagine the commedia style to have been. This S2M features funny noises, such as back-and-forth rat-a-tat-tat squawks of surprise when one character unexpectedly encounters another; bits and shtick, such as a self-admiring character’s self-aggrandizing flourishes upon being introduced (the man seems fond of the line of his own leg); a Cellino & Barnes commercial and another TV ad I couldn’t quite place; political commentary, such as a light-switch joke about the need to be careful when pulling a lever; jokes about the play (when is it going to get underway, where is it going); a few unfamiliar but pretty songs that appear just because it might be nice to have a song right about now; interplay with the audience, such as, the night I attended, some business involving the purse of a woman in the first row; and 5 or 10 other forms of theatrical tomfoolery that, like bubbles in a golden flute of champagne, rise and pop and are gone, always bringing more in their wake.
Do you want to know what S2M is about? Oh, all right—the title ought to tell you enough, but here goes. It’s about a smart-tongued but rather goofy servant, Truffaldino, who comes to town with one master, momentarily loses track of him, and takes up with another. It happens that one of his masters is a woman pretending to be a man, who’s looking for another man, who happens to be the other master that Truffaldino has taken up with, and you figure it’s all going to work out in the end, and so it does, but first we must deal with a wealthy father and his marriageable daughter and her silly suitor and the man to whom she had earlier been promised and…you get the picture, I hope.
The show was adapted by Constance Congdon and further adapted by the show’s director, Christopher Bayes (who teaches clowning at the Yale School of Drama), and its star performer, Steven Epp, who plays Truffaldino. Epp is the sort of live-wire, on-his-toes performer who could, you imagine, in a snap give you three different ways of getting to the Bronx, each one a rapid-fire fizz of confusion and fun. As a result of their work and that of everyone else in the cast, which includes a couple of versatile musicians, I felt at intermission as if I’d like to have a drink but also as if I’d already been drinking, and I felt exactly the same at the end of the show, and I can tell you because I tried it that an actual post-show drink is a bit of a letdown. The Servant of Two Masters is the best kind of intoxication, the kind that rebalances your sense of the whole world and gives you no headache the next day, though it will make you want to do it all again.
The performance that I saw took a few shots at the president-elect and his party, but this show shouldn’t bother anyone with a reasonably thick skin who favored Donald Trump. Really, such is the nature of the affair that followers of Hillary or Bernie or Jill or Gary or the Transhumanist Party candidate, who cruised the country in a bus designed to resemble a coffin, for reasons I won’t go into, might wish their candidate were included too. S2M isn’t political comedy; it’s neither sentimental nor satiric but simply fun like vaudeville was fun.
Those with an interest in politics and comedy might want to consult a recent discussion on The Economist’s Prospero blog. It argues a couple of provocative points, on which I’ll take no position: that the spread of satire may have desensitized us to its sting, and that TV comedians have become members of the liberal urban elite and hence are about to become outsiders again.
[Updated 11/29/16 to correct a mistaken form of the play’s title.]