The cleverly named Department of Fools is offering free outdoor performances to NYC Fringe Festival fanatics as part of the FringeAL FRESCO series. A little commedia del’arte ought to be just the thing to take the sting out of an oppressive downtown heat wave. Or so I thought.
But A History of Servitude is a mess. And not the good, rock-your-mind kind; the painfully boring and unfunny kind. In a series of bits reminiscent of 20th-century screen comedy with roots in commedia, like Mel Brooks movies and Monty Python, but with almost none of the requisite cleverness or sharp character interplay, it simultaneously tries too hard and fails to crack the nut, no matter how often a buzzing fly interrupts the proceedings, or how far it pushes an initially cute mini-bit about trying to revive a picked flower as if it were a flatlining human being.
The concept is a smart and fun one: to relate the history of the world from the point of view of the servants, who are after all so important in commedia. An opening sequence parodying the early-hominid scene at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey has manic energy that shows promise. But the show doesn’t go on to deliver, whether it’s slapstick slaves pretending to quake at the approach of a decrepit Pharaoh; a twisted take on the first Thanksgiving; or scenes that don’t seem to fit the theme, like the first moon landing and the ending of the movie Titanic.
Abortive lectures by Il Dottore (Oren Oettinger) frame the proceedings. The only character who makes any impression, he’s surrounded by an uninspired vacuum and so has little to play off of. Admittedly the show is rooted in improvisations. But it’s played as if it’s not only still in development, but at the very beginning stages of scripting.
Writing this kind of review is the most painful part of a critic’s job, but when a show misses the mark on every level – timing, writing, meaningful resonance with its sources – there’s nothing to do but tell it as I see it. The folks at the Department of Fools are certainly trying to provide something funny and pleasing, but they’re just not pulling it off. Inhabiting the classic commedia characters and putting them in modern or novel situations is fine, but it doesn’t add up to anything when it lacks good material for them to work with. There’s talent behind those masks, but it isn’t serving anything here.
A History of Servitude tries every which way, and too desperately, to be freewheeling, uproarious, and in your face. But it ends up merely slapdash and amateurish.