Dan Donohue stars as Francis Henshall, a failed skiffle player who finds himself juggling two masters, in One Man, Two Guvnors at Berkeley Rep. (Photo: mellopix.com)
There’s a lot going on in One Man, Two Guvnors, the madcap comedy wreaking havoc on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Stage right now.
But the hecticness is fitting: It sure is complicated when you have two different bosses that you don’t want to know about each other. Of course, it wouldn’t be nearly so complicated if the lunkheaded protagonist weren’t so easily confused.
One Man, Two Guvnors is an updated version of Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte-style 1743 comedy Servant of Two Masters. However “updated” doesn’t mean it’s up to date.
Richard Bean’s version, which debuted in 2011, is set in the British seaside town of Brighton in 1963, around the time the Beatles were making a name for themselves.
Guvnors was a hit on the West End and Broadway as a vehicle for James Corden, the English comedian who’s recently become the new host of CBS’s The Late Late Show. At Berkeley Rep the lead role of Francis, the single-mindedly food-motivated servant, is played by Oregon Shakespeare Festival regular Dan Donohue in a bravura display of comedic chops. When the character first shows up, crashing a party, he seems like an obnoxious lout. But his brash blundering is hilarious.
As is often the case in commedia-based plays (such as Tartuffe, the very last show seen on this same stage, or Bill Irwin's Molière adaptation Scapinat ACT), the story involves young lovers who can’t be together because of a parentally arranged marriage. In this version of the popular narrative trope, a servant's goofy hijinks sideline those characters' aims.
The dim-witted beauty Pauline (a charmingly daffy Sarah Moser) wants to marry the pretentiously brooding wannabe actor Alan (Brad Culver), the son of her father’s erudite lawyer (John-David Keller). But the wedding’s off when her previously arranged fiancé, the supposedly dead young gangster Roscoe Crabbe, turns up alive—or rather his twin sister Rachel (a swaggering Helen Sadler) in disguise. Rachel, meanwhile, is in love with the guy who killed her brother (an amusingly posh William Connell). But they’re both on the run and don’t know each other is in town.
Small wonder the others can barely keep track of who’s who or what’s what.
Among the befuddled are Pauline’s loving but firm ex-con father (Robert Sicular); his old prison buddy Lloyd (Gerry McIntyre); and his brassy accountant (Claire Warden) who strikes up a flirtation with Francis. Ron Campbell steals the show with an uproarious display of physical comedy as a decrepit and accident-prone waiter, paired with Danny Scheie’s pricelessly snooty head waiter.
In fact it’s impressive how little of the show is spent on the convoluted plot.
Instead, David Ivers’ fast-paced staging lovingly lingers on such lengthy but hysterical slapstick sequences as Francis trying to lift a heavy trunk or being unwisely entrusted with serving food. Donohue’s at his best in loose bits of audience interaction that he milks so shamelessly and satisfyingly that it’s almost jarring when he gets back to the actual story.
The production also includes musical interludes by a four-piece “skiffle” band (a 1950s jug band craze in the UK that fed into the British Invasion sound) playing a series of catchy ditties by Grant Olding. Though sung with some particularly unfortunate attempts at English accents, these entertaining numbers help create smooth scene transitions.
Divided between serving two masters—English music-hall shtick and Goldoni’s convoluted plot—Guvnors serves the audience a comedic feast.
One Man, Two Guvnors plays through June 21, 2015 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.