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June 22, 2012

Shakespeare Theatre Company brilliantly stages two comic gems

If you want to take your mind off the heat or the presidential campaign or the tense wait for the Supreme Court ruling on the health care law, just head to either venue of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

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 ...

Stephen Epp as Truffaldino, the servant who finds himself working for two employers and getting caught up in all sorts of intrigues. With what might be a dash of Martin Short and a pinch of Charles Nelson Reilly, Epp offers a tour de farce, using every possible octave and dynamic level of his voice and practically every muscle in his body.

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.

"One Servant" runs through Jul 8, "Merry Wives" through July 15.

PHOTOS BY S. CHRISTIAN LOW ('One Servant') AND SCOTT SUCHMAN ('Merry Wives')

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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