Those who believe the best things in life are freewheeling are bound to enjoy the touring Yale Rep production of The Servant of Two Masters corralled at the Paramount Center by ArtsEmerson. This antic but poignant take on Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni's 1743 commedia dell'arte is like clown college paired with grand opera for an extended twirl on the whoopee cushion. Stock characters burst onto the stage, and into song, as if leaping through paper hoops, then leap again into Goldoni's plot about a hungry lackey who indentures himself to two aristocrats and then tries to keep them straight. Lazzi both arcane and anachronistic ensue — I mean, the players here are as shameless as they are elastic, peppering Goldoni's scenario with references to at least six musicals, the Patriots, the ART, minstrelsy, and the debt ceiling. There's even a Helen Keller joke, along with piled-on bodily humor and plastic food that flies through the air with the greatest of ease. Of course, if you are the type who thinks two stooges might be enough, the comic foolery can seem a bit protracted.
The inventive production by Yale School of Drama head of physical acting Christopher Bayes (from an adaptation by Constance Congdon) is unleashed from an old trunk and aims for a populist, improvisational, yet classical feel. And don't be fooled: the chaos is carefully choreographed and rigorously executed by a wittily costumed, high-pitched cast of clowns who revel in their stereotypes and are also accomplished singers, their warbling punctuated by an onstage two-person band. Monty Python could take a few notes on all the silly walks.
And yet, Bayes's 2010 production does from time to time try a little tenderness, mostly in the person of Steven Epp's forlorn Truffaldino, the titular two-timer who, when he isn't dodging blows from others or contending with the results of his own incompetence, can go a little melty on you. A bit more ache is built into a lovely trio for the three ladies of the cast. There is even a whiff of fairy tale floating through the staging, climaxing at the end when a glowing crescent moon ascends into a starry sky like a big sideways smile. If you have kept yours on for two and a half hours, you'll probably find it magical.
THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS :: Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington St, Boston :: Through February 10 :: $25–$89 :: 617.824.8400 or artsemerson.org
, Carlo Goldoni, ArtsEmerson