Poor audience volunteer.
This is the unassuming woman who had the horrible fortune of snagging a hella good seat for Berkeley Rep’s latest production of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” playing through June 28th at the Roda Theatre. She was brought, no, more like thunderously dragged onto the stage. What seemed like just a moment for her turned out to be an eternity in the midst of a chaotic dinner sequence that had the audience roaring with laughter.
“One Man, Two Guvnors,” based on the Carlo Goldoni commedia dell’arte classic “The Servant of Two Masters” is rich in so many ways. Rich in tradition, taking a form that has held up well over many years. It’s also rich in humor, taking stock commedia characters like the Arlecchino and the Pantalone and updating them to the 1960’s at a Brighton, England boardwalk. And rich, as in playwright Richard Bean, who conceived this pithy adaptation from a Goldoni play that is terribly hilarious.
Francis Henshall (a devastatingly quick-witted Dan Donohue) is the servant to Roscoe Crabbe (A committed portrayal by “True Blood’s” Helen Sadler). Now Roscoe is engaged to air-headed young’n Pauline (precisely dim-witted Sarah Moser), but Pauline is all about the actor Alan (a playful and hilarious turn by Brad Culver). Alan is in constant method acting mode, saying absurdly empty things such as “If you are a bus, your destiny is the bus station.” Where things take a more chaotic turn is when Stanley Stubbers (William Connell) also hires Francis, and things get buck wild.
Now that’s the basic premise. The nuance is much more hearty, identities are mistaken at breakneck speed, and honestly, there are plenty of times when I wasn’t completely sure what the hell was going on.
Commedia as a form is not necessarily all about connecting every plot point together. That is also true for plays that are farcical. What director David Ivers understands brilliantly is that in this form, it’s all about the laughter. Make them laugh, find the funny, and if you need to shove those laughs down the audience’s bellies in order to regurgitate more laughs, so be it.
Ok, that may be a bit extreme, but so was the show. What works so well is the fact that in a style such as this, you never know what is going to happen. And nothing epitomizes the surprise and shock of the show than the faces of the wonderful Skiffle band that watches the proceedings from stage left and stage right.
This part gave a lot of clues as to what was happening, an unassuming and delightful band that laughed at every fresh ad lib. Like Donohue’s lengthy discussion with an audience member about a hummus sandwich, much to the chagrin of the actual stage manager, who seemingly was desperate to move the action along. Donohue’s reaction to this patron: Hummus? In Berkeley? Mooo (I added that last part, sorry).
There were plenty of other great moments and humor that were equal parts physical and equal parts wit, a show loaded with great bits and brilliant leitmotifs. Such as Lloyd Boateng’s (a subtly histrionic performance by Gerry McIntyre) constant referencing of a prison stint and Alfie (succinctly fluid Ron Campbell) and his challenge of using the stairs. There was also the wonderful Bay Area performer Danny Scheie and his leading of the dinner scene as the headwaiter, one of Goldoni’s wackiest scenes in the original source material.
Ivers, who is the artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare festival, brings things to a head in magical ways. And while there is plenty of convolution, made more challenging by some heavy British accents, none of that matters. What does matter more than anything is the laugh. The big, hearty, no-holds-barred belly laugh.
Which brings it all back to that audience volunteer. Now, without giving away anything at all, I will only say that this was the most brilliant and hilarious sequence in Bean’s fantastic script. And it also makes you think. As in, did I really just see that?
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “One Man, Two Guvnors”
Written by Richard Bean
Directed by David Ivers
The Word: Despite the periodic challenges of following the story, what is clear is the day is the hilarity of the play, led brilliantly by Oregon Shakespeare Festival stalwart Donohue.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
The Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $29 – $89
Through June 28th
For tickets and information, call (510) 657-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org