As soon as you see the bright red floor and walls of Center Stage's set for "Servant of Two Masters," you know this production of Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century comedy is going to be anything but subtle.
That impression is confirmed almost immediately when Marcell Rosenblatt, portraying a maid, comes out with a feather duster and does some rather suggestive dusting of a huge blue commedia dell'arte mask, which is, at that point, the only piece of scenery on stage.
Shortly thereafter, Robert Dorfman, as the servant of the title, makes his entrance by crashing through a paper wall to the accompaniment of drumrolls, cymbal crashes and Spike Jones-style whistles, provided by a very busy onstage musician-cum-sound effects man (Brian Johnson).
There's so much shtick and comic business in director Irene Lewis' broad, bawdy approach, that it's easy to imagine the show being staged outdoors for the masses, as its commedia dell'arte predecessors frequently were.
Granted, Goldoni is credited with bringing a bit more substance to this style of comedy. And the script, translated by Tom Cone, does comment on such basic -- if not to say, base -- human motivations as hunger, lust and greed, but Lewis and company layer a gleaming cartoon-like sheen over more serious concerns.
Consider the play's innocent young lovers. Nina Humphrey's ringletted Clarice is a cross between Shirley Temple and Judy Holliday, and Jefferson Mays' lisping Silvio, decked out in red Buster Brown wig and baggy short pants, is one of the production's most delightfully silly characters; when these two are on stage together they look like a pair of magnetic kissing dolls -- and appear to be just about as intelligent.
Most of all, however, the production is a vehicle for one of Center Stage's favorite clowns, Dorfman, whose Ringling Bros. pedigree comes in handy as the servant, Truffaldino. And, Dorfman is in fine form here. Looking a little like Charlie Chaplin in a baseball cap, his Truffaldino is so famished, he talks to his stomach, which, at one point, actually leads him around. His empty stomach also leads him to hire himself out to two employers, who turn out to be separated lovers searching for each other.
The production incorporates a smattering of updated references, and one of the naughtiest concerns Truffaldino's employers. Unlike the aforementioned childlike lovers, who look like toy dolls, Diana LaMar's Beatrice and Matt Servitto's Florindo come closer to the X-rated variety. When Truffaldino unpacks Beatrice's trunk, he discovers an array of black leather paraphernalia perfectly in keeping with LaMar's Cat Woman/sex kitten image.
It takes a lot of mix-ups, sword fights, attempted suicides and eating, eating, eating -- by everyone, it seems, but Truffaldino -- to get the proper pairs of lovers sorted out in the end. But, to the strains of Hollywood-sounding romantic chords, they're all well on the road to happily-ever-after at the final curtain.
Theater, by definition, is collaborative, and this production offers an excellent example of the way many cooks can enrich the comic broth. The program's title page lists more than twice as many names as the average playbill. Besides the director and designers, there's a commedia consultant (Michael Lane Trautman), a fight choreographer (J. Allen Suddeth) and a composer/sound designer (John Gromada), to name a few. Together they have found just the right blend of comic spices to make an 18th-century script produce 20th-century belly laughs.
'Servant of Two Masters'
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees most Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Nov. 8.
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
Call: (410) 332-0033.