Clowntime’s Not Over

Seattle Shakes delivers an 18th-century delight.

I have an ongoing argument with a buddy who believes that what was funny 20 years ago is painfully dated today. His evidence? Everything from the Keystone Cops to Smokey and the Bandit, as well as the radio serials of Edgar Bergen and Amos 'n' Andy. When I mention the sidesplitting anarchy of the Marx Brothers or Elmer Fudd's epic battles to kill the wabbit, he groans and points out that Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, and Sarah Silverman do it all better and with a more contemporary sensibility—and that they too will eventually be yesterday's news, just like Eddie Murphy, Andrew Dice Clay, and Mike Myers.All of which brings us to The Servant of Two Masters, put on by Seattle Shakespeare Company. In the program notes, director Dan McCleary explains that his production commingles not only renaissance farce with commedia dell'arte, but incorporates elements of vaudeville (which he likens to the Italian improvisational art form), as well as silent film and sitcom. McCleary believes that while some social customs and mores don't translate to today's lexicon of humor, there are also immutable commonalities in life that are always going to get a laugh. And his take on Carlo Goldoni's comedy of mistaken identity, white lies, and cross-dressing is as funny today as when Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis used the same devices in Some Like It Hot, or when John Travolta pulled them off last year in Hairspray.Here, iambic pentameter is out the window, and juggling, improv, acrobatic dancing, and Robertson Witmer's underscore (which careens from a rewrite of Groucho's signature tune "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" to Bette Midler's boo-hoo ballad "The Rose") seize the day. All the tangles come unsnarled in the end, of course, but it's awfully fun watching as one player after another gets his or her knickers in a wad.The plot is a maelstrom of deception and star-crossed romance. At the center is a Chaplinesque manservant named Truffaldino whose mission is to keep his two masters from learning that he's moonlighting by working for them simultaneously. His bosses turn out to have a rather complicated relationship themselves. Add to that a colorful array of paramours, swashbuckling dimbulbs, and mourning maidens, all struggling to live happily ever after.As if McCleary hasn't created enough work for himself, he's added on to this edifice the notion that the actors playing these roles are part of a roving theater troupe, known as "The Traveling Tragedians," who are all set to embark on The Merchant of Venice when they learn that isn't the play advertised—or printed on hundreds of tickets. As the Master of Revels, Shawn Belyea is the ringmaster and narrator who assigns the actors their last-minute new roles and calls the action. It's a clever device, enabling Belyea to either explain the action or prod it along when the script sags under the weight of its considerable vintage.In an ensemble as strong as this one, it's hard to single out any player for special praise. As Truffaldino, Chris Ensweiler shows he has talent to burn and takes delight in dialing his inner Robin Williams up to 11 at every turn. Kerry Ryan takes the comparatively tiny role of his love interest and builds a comedic monument to misery. Even bit parts, like the comely barmaid Brighella (Katjana Vadeboncoeur) or that of assorted doofuses (Ben Burris), give these actors all they need to shine. Assorted parents and suitors—often written as strident, and notoriously unfunny—get a bit of stage time to ham it up, and no one shrinks from the task.With a colorful multipurpose set from Jason Phillips, Deane Middleton's tongue-in-cheek costumes, and Ben Zamora's facile lighting plot, there's only one reservation I have in recommending this show. As Truffaldino repeatedly reminds those around him, there's a difference between a fool and a clown. To carry his point further, a clown could also be a performer who knows when something is working onstage and when it's not. A fool is that actor who keeps lame bits of business in the show simply because they amuse other cast members. Trimmed of 10 minutes, this show could vault from funny to laugh riot—in any era.stage@seattleweekly.com

 
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