To an English speaker a few centuries later, the Italian phrase commedia dell’arte sounds alarmingly ostentatious, even after you realize the form is about as highfalutin’ and inaccessible as a Zucker Brothers movie or a Looney Tune. This school of masked, highly improvisational comic theater typically involves a character of low standing who finds himself in a position to influence the fate of his betters. The formula is loose enough to accommodate whatever jokes, songs, impressions, dance steps, or slapstick routines performers feel like shoehorning into it.
Which, in the case of Christopher Bayes’ manic new resuscitation of the 18th century farce The Servant of Two Masters, is a diverse lot, and also, well, a lot of lot. Liberal references to The Music Man and Oliver! seemed to tickle the press-night audience a lot more than a refrain from Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place,” and a line from The Wizard of Oz hit big while a shoutout to Willem Dafoe’s death scene in Platoon got nothin’. Theater people! Always sooooo interested in theater! Also in The Wizard of Oz! Can we not at least agree the time has come for emergency legislation imposing a moratorium on “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” parodies for not fewer than 10 years? And also on jokey hip-hop that presumes the mere fact of hip-hop coming from a white person’s mouth is funny? Because that way madness, and Chris Cooper’s rap from last year’s Muppets sequel, lies.
Take away those excesses—and the city- and venue-specific in-jokes, of which there are a great and terrible many—and there’s still plenty of amiable excess to enjoy here. And once you’re done enjoying it, well, there’s only about 15 more minutes to go before Bayes and lighting designer Chuan-Chi Chan give us a memorable stage picture to wrap up the long evening. But let’s not punish this goofy thing for its overgenerosity. Steven Epp has a winning physical and verbal dexterity as Truffaldino, the titular servant who contrives to make bank by double-booking himself. He’s so frazzled trying to hide his dual-employment from his pair of bosses that he never pieces together that they’re separated lovers (one of them a woman in man’s clothing, like so many Shakespearean heroines before her), each searching for the other. Actually, it might not just be stress that keeps him from noticing; he’s not exactly the sharpest rubber chicken in the armory. “When is the play gonna start?” he asks for the first of several times, 20 minutes after the curtain.
As Pantalone, a father trying to settle on a suitor for his daughter, Allen Gilmore hides his face behind a long-beaked brown mask all night (the costumes are by Valérie Thérèse Bart and the masks by Renzo Antonello), but his stunning physicality and vocal work make him seem at once more cartoonish and more appreciably human than most of his fellows. As the duller of the two masters, Jesse J. Perez struts and sweats enough to underscore the sacrifice required to preen, pratfall, and swordfight in leggings and long tails—or for that matter, just to stand under the lights and talk. Chris Curtis and Aaron Halva comprise the two-man band whose jaunty live score contributes in no small measure to the evening’s charm.