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Shakespeare & Company's `Servant' elevates silliness to an art

LENOX -- Something is raucous in the state of Denmark.

A traveling band of players, you see, has arrived at the outdoor tented stage known as the Rose Footprint Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, intent on presenting ``Hamlet." To the actors' dismay, they soon discover that another company -- run by some Tina Packer person -- is doing ``Hamlet" on the main stage, just up the hill. Time to improvise.

And improvise they do, to the great amusement of themselves and all of us with a soft spot for slapstick, knock-knock jokes, and juggled rubber chickens. It's silly, it's speedy, and it's just the thing to see before settling in for the more serious fare nearby.

It's also, as advertised, a performance (in two parts, to be seen on separate days or all at once) of Carlo Goldoni's classic piece of commedia dell'arte, ``The Servant of Two Masters." OK, perhaps Goldoni didn't specify rubber chickens, and whatever knock-knockini existed in 18th-century Italy have been lost to history. But improvisation and embellishment are the soul of commedia, and it's that soul that matters more than details of, say, dialogue or plot. In that sense, S. & Co.'s ``Servant" is as faithful a rendition as you could desire.

Actor Michael Burnet, who also directs the free Bankside programming of which ``Servant" is a part, infuses the starring servant, Truffaldino, with Chaplinesque innocence and Keatonesque grace. His two masters are in fact estranged lovers, one in disguise as her own dead brother. There's another star-crossed couple, too, along with a couple of scheming fathers and the odd saucy wench.

The young and tireless players take these stock roles and run with them, with especially funny work from sassy Karen Lee and Julie Webster, pompous Sam Reiff-Pasarew, cross-dressing Catherine Taylor-Williams, and hysterical Lydia Barnett-Mulligan (who wails, on learning that she will be playing Our Young Lady of Perpetual Despair and not Ophelia, ``I'm not in a comedic place right now!"). Everyone riffs on the classic types with current political jabs, pop-culture references, and shtick straight out of vaudeville -- which, as director Dan McCleary points out, is a direct descendant, along with sitcoms, of the commedia tradition that also inspired Shakespeare himself.

Be warned that there are a couple of water pistols, some Silly String, and other less physical assaults on the dignity of the audience. And don't be fooled by that sweet, funny Master of Ceremonies and his goofy Deputy coming around to chat you up beforehand. If you're foolish enough to give your real name, you'll soon find it incorporated into the most outrageous bits of improvised dialogue. Even a critic who reveals that she's on the job is, tragically, not immune.

As unexpected as it might be, though, to find oneself named as the nefarious, bumbling, and wholly imaginary servant on whom Truffaldino blames his every mishap, a few minutes of this silliness is enough to transform you into a helpless, quivering mass of giggles. So much for critical distance. But this is the kind of show where you just don't need it. On the contrary, judging from the tots in the front row who loved every water-soaked minute, the sillier you can get, the happier you'll be.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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