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Scapin, Piccolo Theatre, at the Hemenway United Methodist Church. It’s easy to see why Bill Irwin, one of America’s greatest clowns, wanted to adapt Moliere’s comic trifle Scapin. This fast-paced farcical escapade, in which the eponymous servant hoodwinks, cajoles, and manipulates everyone around him in order to bring together two pairs of befuddled lovers, is so giddy and absurd it might as well come with floppy shoes and seltzer bottles. While Irwin and Mark O’Donnell’s 1997 reworking of Moliere’s 1671 gem replaces the original’s bracing French crispness with a slouching, vernacular-heavy American insouciance, it provides ample opportunities for the kind of physical shtick for which Irwin is rightly renowned.
Though Piccolo Theatre’s relatively young cast displays little physical adroitness, director John Szostek piles on the physical comedy; the result is a fussy, fidgety evening. Attempting to recast Irwin’s slapstick as commedia dell’arte, Szostek pretends his troupe are itinerant players who’ve erected a makeshift stage in the middle of a church gymnasium; when not onstage, the actors sit before a long table on the sidelines and provide baroque sound effects. But without sharp physical control, not to mention intellectual rigor, this commedia quickly degenerates into broad, noisy mugging, flattening the humor and obscuring the characters’ motivations. With the exception of Deborah Craft as the weepy Hyacinth, who turns her first entrance into a two-minute symphony of sobs, the company doesn’t communicate much that’s human.