One Man, Two Guvnors
(Based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
With songs by Grant Olding)
Roda Theatre, Berkeley
Even from the lobby of Berkeley’s Roda Theatre, delightful, fun-sounding music from some unseen band fills the air as we enter to see Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors. Once inside the auditorium, we see audience members rhythmically clapping and half-dancing to their seats as four musicians play and sing in full force in a curious mash of country, bluegrass, rock, and Celtic sounds (complete with a washboard-and-bell percussionist). Before us a brightly colored collage of British symbols and caricatures on a yellow curtain, the stage is clearly set for an afternoon of fun. That is further highlighted by the entrance of locally-favorite Danny Scheie who bombastically greets us with the usual warnings about phones, cameras, and exits but does so in a manner to leave us all in total stitches of laughter.
Having seen in 2013 this previous London and New York mega-hit, I was skeptical how funny all the exaggerated antics of this big cast of commedia stock characters would once again be for me. The jokes are often grade-school silly to the point of being groaners, and some are repeated ad nauseam every time a character speaks. Some of the characters are stereotyped (like a vacuous, “I don’t understand” blonde or the mimic references to a supposedly gay mobster) in ways that feel no longer that funny in 2015. But as soon as Dan Donohue stumbles onto the stage with his rubbery-loose body suddenly to find himself as Francis Henshall, the servant of two ‘guvnors,’ it is clear this will definitely be a triumphant undertaking.
Summarizing the plot of a farce like One Man, Two Guvnors is mostly impossible and actually unnecessary. The twists and turns are countless; and the plot plays second fiddle to all the slapstick falls, the crazy chases, the closing/opening doors, the flung food, and the inevitable audience members becoming full-cast members. But to set the scene, an arranged marriage between the ditsy daughter (Pauline) of a mob boss (Charlie the Duck) and an overly dramatic thespian son (Alan) of Charlie’s sleazy solicitor (Harry, whom we hear a dozen times got the Mau Mau off clean) is set awry by the appearance of Pauline’s would-be gangster fiancé, whom everyone thought was murdered. Turns out, he was and the newly arrived to-be-husband is the dead man’s twin sister in disguise (Rachel dressed as Roscoe). Pauline’s true love (Stanley) and Rachel/Roscoe both are in need of a servant to move into a local pub their over-sized trunks (identical of course), to iron their clothes, and to go get important letters from the post office. And so enters Francis Henshall; and the true fun, as mentioned earlier, really begins.
Dan Donohue as Francis truly commands the stage every time he appears. What he does with every inch of his body in moves and positions that defy description is phenomenal and gut-splittingly funny. We marvel as he uses every possible manner of ridiculous bodily ploys to move Stanley’s over-sized trunk. We howl as he serves a multi-course meal to two impatient, demanding masters who are dining in two rooms (behind closed doors that loudly and repeatedly slam, of course) and serves most of the meal to himself via his mouth, pockets, and a bowl held by a woman plucked from the audience (herself a whole act of hilarity not to be missed). Even with all the clowning, we come to care for and root for this Charlie Chaplin guy before us, especially as he falls in love (in between all his serving and swerving) with the feminist-leaning, but also funny and sexually-craved bookkeeper Dolly (straight-laced Claire Warden who melts into love-sick puddles around Stanley).
Each of the large cast draws many laughs through individual antics (like the repeated, stop-action moments Brad Culver takes in the spotlight as the would-be actor Alan who quotes from almost every iconic stage hero you can possibly name). But standing applause must go to Danny Sheie and Ron Campbell as the waiters Gareth and Alfie who combo with Dan Donohue’s Francis to serve up the most outrageous, over-the-top lunch imaginable. With food and bodies both flying through the air, the scene gets crazier and more outlandish with each passing course.
Interspersed through the scenes are reappearances of the opening band, often with cameo solos by another cast member on such instruments as beeping horns and xylophone. Grant Olding’s music moves from First Act skiffle (blended, mixed-genre tunes popular in post-war England) to Second Act harmonies and lyrics that have more than passing familiarities with the British boy bands of the 60s. Positioned on both sides upstage, the band becomes a vital part of the fun and frolic.
No great morals, insights or meanings emerge from One Man, Two Govnors. What does emerge is an audience with aching jaws and sides, exhausted from laughing.
One Man, Two Guvnors continues in the Roda Theatre of Berkeley Repertory Theatre through June 21, 2015.
Rating: 5 E’s