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Originally published October 3, 2013 at 8:04 PM | Page modified October 7, 2013 at 12:46 PM

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‘Servant of Two Masters’ is a rowdy romp | Theater review

A review of the 18th-century Carlo Goldoni farce, “The Servant of Two Masters,” which opens Seattle Rep’s 2013-14 season.

Seattle Times theater critic

THEATER REVIEW

‘The Servant of Two Masters’

Through Oct. 20, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Bagley Wright Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $15-$65 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).

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Giddy-gadding about. Silly songs. Simpering lovers, and their put-upon servants. Up-to-the-minute wisecracks — including some choice ones about the current government shutdown.

New shtick, and plenty of shtick that is (no joking) centuries old. That’s the deal in the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s season opener, an agreeably boisterous, intermittently hilarious gambol through the Carlo Goldoni comedy “The Servant of Two Masters.”

At 2½ hours, the revels crank up slowly, and those with an allergy to slapstick may not be amused. But if you can see yourself delighting in a troupe of buffoons cutting up in a village square, hearty laughs are in store.

We’ll never really know what early commedia dell’arte performances (which date back to the 1500s) were like. No recording devices caught those Italian zanies in action. Their shows were heavily ad-libbed, hence unscripted. You just had to be there.

But they did leave us with a gallery of comedic archetypes and lazzi (funny business) that keep on giving — in modern TV sitcoms, improv skits, stoner buddy flicks, etc.

“The Servant of Two Masters” is Goldoni’s 18th-century love letter to such comic forebears. And wily commedia experts Steven Epp and Christopher Bayes keep the tradition going in this adaptation of Goldoni they’ve wrought with playwright Constance Congdon.

This nimble pair also drove a boffo 2010 version of Moliere’s commedia-inspired romp, “A Doctor in Spite of Himself” at Intiman Theatre.

Here Bayes directs while comrade (and Theatre de la Jeune Lune co-founder) Epp plays Truffaldino, a double of the classic jester Arlecchino. In Goldoni’s scenario, the grandioso quipster does double duty mucking up the affairs of two bosses — a quiveringly self-adoring dandy, Florindo (the uproariously ridiculous Jesse J. Perez), and Florindo’s lover in male disguise, Beatrice (dashing Liz Wisan).

Scrambling between them, Truffaldino also tangles with a pair of sweethearts who have the combined IQ of a ruffled cuff (Adina Verson and Eugene Ma), with the miserly patriarch Pantalone (Allen Gilmore) and with Smeraldina (Seattle fave Julie Briskman), a fellow servant Truffaldino shyly crushes on.

Let’s not bother with the plot of crossed wires and mangled messages. It’s just a ruse for stock characters to throw hissy fits, fake-smack each other about (to the snap of a genuine slapstick) and take off on wacky physical/verbal tangents.

No one out-clowns Gilmore (a noted Chicago actor, with credits here at the Rep and Intiman). Resembling a shriveled Santa Claus in scarlet long johns and wispy beard, this borderline-hysteric Pantalone spouts black slang and Beyoncé tunes, and in one killer bit, executes a disastrous acrobatic pose that takes him forever to get out of.

Epp is as funny, in his own balefully affecting style. He can work an audience with a stare, a shrug, a profane kvetch or bawdy move. (The show is too suggestive for kids). And he’s a font of (sometimes impromptu) one-liners, many of them hit-and-miss cracks tailored for Seattle. (Jabs at Microsoft and Enumclaw just aren’t as funny as the one about our civic passion for Wagnerian opera.)

Some in the well-tooled ensemble have appeared in other versions of this production (originated by Yale Repertory Theatre), and all contribute to the merriment. So do designer Katherine Akiko Day’s vintage proscenium and backdrop, the twinkling stars of Chuan-Chi Chan’s lighting scheme, Valérie Thérèse Bart’s period costumes, and the eclectic musical accents (from Mozart to Macklemore) provided by a very alert instrumental duo, Carolyn Boulay and Aaron Halva.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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