Present-day stagings of commedia dell'arte, the broad comedy style from 16th- and 17th-century Italy, sometimes seem like more trouble than they're worth. Several times I've seen theater companies – including Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang in Los Angeles – attempt to do justice to the old-fashioned form only to sink into a scholarly exercise. A show still has to draw laughs out of people who've never heard of archetypal clowns such as Pantaloon.
Director Dan Cleary makes a particularly energetic and inventive attempt with his fresh-feeling version of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters for Georgia Shakespeare. Cleary's production attempts to evoke the heavily improvised nature of commedia dell'arte by presenting the company as a troupe of players prepared to stage the tragedy Richard III (on tap for Georgia Shakespeare this fall), and forced to scramble when they "realize" their mistake. It's completely bogus, but Rob Cleveland's performance as the desperate impresario and the company's pre-show interaction with the audience appealingly set the stage (which includes a hilarious nod to the conspicuous prop from Georgia Shakespeare's Metamorphoses).
The Servant of Two Masters, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and Paolo Emilio Landi, combines the mistaken-identity gags of The Comedy of Errors and the cross-dressing romance of As You Like It, both by Shakespeare. A pair of star-crossed lovers (Daniel May and Carolyn Cook) find the road to their reunion complicated when, unbeknownst to each other, they hire the same servant (Chris Ensweiler), who sows confusion while drawing two paychecks.
Ensweiler lives up to Cleary's attempt to emulate the physical comedy of American vaudeville and silent movies. He not only wears Buster Keaton's hat, but a similarly becalmed, stony expression during quiet moments that helps steady the show's knockaround humor. Ensweiler leads the cast in a show that's a veritable compendium of physical comedy, from pies in the face to the fake horseback-riding of Monty Python. Amelia Hammond's bratty tantrums as a young fiancee and Park Krausen's violent, angular curtsies provide shining examples of the show's superb "body acting."
The verbal comedy succeeds less often, particularly Ensweiler's fleeting, superfluous impressions of the likes of Marlon Brando. The audience dutifully laughed at the locally focused, timely one-liners such as, "The girl goes through men like Monica Kaufman through hairstyles" or "I'm afraid I'll get robbed in a Buckhead parking lot." Overall, the clowns from The Servant of Two Masters get their biggest guffaws without opening their mouths.
The Servant of Two Masters. Through July 28 (in rotating repertory with Pericles beginning June 28). $15-$40. Georgia Shakespeare, Conant Performing Arts Center, 4484 Peachtree Road. 404-264-0020. www.gashakespeare.org.