All comedy revels in anarchy, but great comedy revels in the anarchy that results when the best intentions go disastrously wrong. (I’m reminded of that great Steve Martin quote about chaos only being funny when it’s in the midst of order.) “The Servant of Two Masters,” written by Carlo Goldini in the 1750s and updated for modern audiences by Jeffrey Hatcher, is one of the most chaotic comedies ever conceived: It’s the antecedent to everything from “Duck Soup” to “Noises Off” to that standby sitcom plot in which a guy has two different dates at the same time and must bounce back and forth between them undetected.
Premiering this weekend at the Spokane Civic Theatre, “The Servant of Two Masters” maintains a screwball breathlessness for its entire duration. It’s got the kind of complex, whirligig plot that can easily come crashing down if the energy level flags for even a moment, but the Civic cast pulls this one off. You get the sense that the actors are having an absolute blast clowning their way through this material, and the play ends up being as much fun to watch as it no doubt was to perform.
The Civic’s production, fleetly directed by Patrick Treadway, is presented (quite brilliantly) as a play within a play. The set is designed to look like an old-fashioned raked stage, so we can see the performers as they wait in the wings, drinking and smoking and waiting for their cues to come back out. The actors also address the audience directly: In a form of 18th-century product placement, we’re often reminded of the all-purpose snake oil tonic that’s sponsoring the show, and they occasionally stop the action to catch us up on what’s happening in Goldini’s absurdly complicated plot.
It’s that self-aware winking that keeps this version of “Servant” fresh and limber. Comedy this chaotic has to appear effortless, but this fictional theater troupe is just as flustered and covered in flop sweat as the bumbling characters they’re portraying. Before the show has even begun, one of the actresses has run off (only to be replaced by the male stage manager in a dress and wig), and at a pivotal point during the show, someone forgets their lines and has to be reminded (through charades) by a mute stagehand.
Despite the confusion onstage and off, Goldini’s story is controlled in its lunacy; it seems to run right off the rails, but every turn of the plot (and there are a lot of turns) is perfectly calculated. It all centers on Truffaldino (Preston Loomer), an illiterate servant who sweet-talks his way into working for two different masters while in Venice. One of his employers is Beatrice (Erin Fitzgerald), a woman in disguise as her dead brother; the other is Florindo (Samuel Peters), who is not only in love with Beatrice but is the man who killed her brother.
Describing what happens in a simple, tidy paragraph is a fool’s errand, because the joy of “The Servant of Two Masters” is watching the wheels of the plot spin faster and faster until seemingly every character has been mired in misunderstanding and deception. Truffaldino ends up running himself in circles – the most famous scene of the show involves him delivering food to each of his masters’ respective hotel rooms, never quite sure which plate goes to whom. And there are a number of inspired set pieces in the show, including an impressive, acrobatic bit involving plate juggling and a “Looney Tunes”-style chase scene that incorporates a surprising (and hilariously anachronistic) musical cue.
But its Treadway’s cast who do most of the comedic heavy lifting here: As clever and gleefully ribald as Hatcher’s revamped script is, it’s the sheer stamina of the actors that keeps the show moving at an entertaining, breakneck pace. There’s not a bad or wasted performance here – even the ensemble sitting side-stage gets laughs through offhand lines and wacky sound effects – and every actor has a surprisingly tight grasp on the comic quirks of the characters. “The Servant of Two Masters” isn’t concerned with anything other than delivering laughs, but it does so with the regularity and proficiency of a well-oiled machine.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.