Shakespeare Theatre Company brilliantly stages two comic gems
I can't guarantee that you won't quickly resume your worries after attending "The Servant of Two Masters" at the Lansburgh Theatre or "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at Sidney Harman Hall, but I defy you to remember any cares and woes while spending a few hours with the company's scintillant productions of these comic gems.
Adapted by Constance Congdon from Christina Sibul's translation of Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century work (got all that?), "The Servant of Two Masters" is pure farce, insanely frantic and thick-plotted. The original material is strong enough to withstand any number of treatments -- a London National Theatre import called "One Man, Two Guvnors" is the talk of Broadway these days.
The version at STC is terrifically clever, offering a joy ride of witty dialogue and physical shtick that never runs out of steam. (Contemporary references, including mention of STC's potentially nasty battle with the Lansburgh Theatre's landlord, pop up along the way.)
Director Christopher Bayes masterfully puts his lively actors through their deftly timed paces all over Katherine Akiko Day's droll set, complemented by Valerie Therese Bart's dynamic costumes.
At the center of the action is ...
The rest of the ensemble jumps into the fray with panache. Particularly amusing flourishes come from Jesse J. Perez as Florindo, Danielle Brooks as Clarice and Allen Gilmore as Pantalone. The music by Chris Curtis and Aaron Halva played onstage adds a welcome vaudeville dimension to the proceedings.
Over at Harman Hall, things get nearly as farcical in a whirlwind production of "Merry Wives" that seems determined to prove that this is not, as commonly averred, one of Shakespeare's lesser, weakest works. They made a believer out of me. (Truth be told, I think Verdi and Boito managed to outdo the Bard in their opera "Falstaff," but that's another story.)
To begin with, the STC staging offers an inventive updating, not for the sake of updating (a common enough excuse these days), but for bringing out the issues of class -- especially middle class -- that fill the play. Placed in 1919, just after the Great War, this "Merry Wives" often seems like the comedy Wilde might have written to meet the demand for more drollery after "The Importance of Being Earnest."
Daniel Lee Conway's set design evokes a British music hall before the curtain rise; a lot of atmosphere gets conjured up in rapid fashion afterward, including a victory parade for returning troops amid the pealing of bells. Later on, Falstaff's followers arrive looking like they stepped out of the World War I episodes of "Blackadder"; Bardolph is clearly a cousin to Baldrick.
Such things add an entertaining spark, but director Stephen Rayne doesn't allow anything to overwhelm the material. The play's still the thing. And he draws from the cast vividly detailed and delineated characterizations, not to mention a bravura articulation of text.
David Schramm enjoys quite a romp as Falstaff, physically (he's every inch the part) and verbally, with many a basso profondo vocal flourish. The actor does not hide the pomposity or audacity of the fat old goat, but manages to bring out the rascally charm, too.
As the two victims of Falstaff's pecuniary advances, Veanne Cox (Meg) and Caralyn Kozlowski (Alice) do sparkling work, adding a layer of Noel Coward to the proceedings (aided by Wade Laboissonniere's elegant costumes).
Among the notable contributions from the rest of the ensemble are Amy Hohn, a super-buoyant Mistress Quickly; Michael Keyloun's foppish Slender; Tom Story's Doctor Caius, with a deliciously over-the-top French accent and a penchant for parfume; Floyd King as the prissy parson; and Mark J. Sullivan's dashing, motorbike-riding Fenton.
Light, bright and tight, both STC productions uncork plenty of humor and keep it flowing in fresh, invigorating ways. Ideal summer escapes.
PHOTOS BY S. CHRISTIAN LOW ('One Servant') AND SCOTT SUCHMAN ('Merry Wives')