For a century now, Italy has been associated with stylish, sporty cars. But lately back in vogue is another kind of high-performance Italian vehicle: Carlo Goldini’s mid-18th-century play The Servant of Two Masters. Given the right driver (that is to say, lead actor) and the right road conditions (the ensemble cast, direction, etc., as we stretch the metaphor), the revved-up comedy classic provides quite the thrill ride.
That surely was the case with Richard Bean’s cheeky adaptation, One Man, Two Guvnors, a huge hit at the National Theatre in London in 2011, and then on Broadway, in both cases starring James Corden as the story’s hungry, harried and hilarious protagonist, Francis. Less widely renowned but no less remarkable was the Servant adaptation by Oded Gross and Tracy Young at the 2009 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, centered on the improvisatory genius of Mark Bedard.
Now One Man, Two Guvnors has pulled into the Portland area as a Clackamas Repertory Theatre production directed by David Smith-English and starring Jayson Shanafelt.
My great colleague and friend Bob Hicks recently discussed Artists Rep’s new production of The Understudy as primarily a vehicle for its performers; that’s true almost by definition with One Man, Two Guvnors, which is strongly rooted in the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition and its archetypes and improvisational superstructures. So, with a tip of the hat to Mr. Hicks, let’s continue with that critical framework.
I’ll put it this way: You may have a driver’s license, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to win a Formula One grand prix.
There’s a lot to like about the Clackamas production, but overall it’s a bumpy ride, marred by uneven performances and uncertain rhythms.
Things sputter from the outset. Bean’s adaptation sets the story in 1963 in the British coastal town of Brighton, and uses a skiffle band to add some period flavor. Smith-English puts his band front and center for three full songs even before the pre-show stage announcement, which feels like a bit much, but that could serve either as a simple present-tense greeting or as a way to ease the audience into the time/place/feeling of the play. Yet they try to have it both ways here: Band leader Bill Briare, with one of the least-convincing British accents you’re likely to hear, jokes about what a tough time it is for skiffle bands here in 1963, what with the Beatles taking over, then proceeds to sing about “local” rivers such as the Columbia and the Willamette.
Are we supposed to be in 1963 Portland, where there’d be no such thing as a skiffle band? Or in Brighton, where it’s unlikely anyone knows about the Willamette? Both? Neither? Perhaps it wouldn’t matter, if Briare sang in tune or the quartet played with the youthful energy that characterized the British skiffle craze, but we’re out of luck there, too. Three more songs leading into Act II, plus interstitial tunes throughout, and the band’s appearances start to feel depressing, not enlivening.
The ensuing story itself is complicated simplicity. Francis (called Truffaldino in Servant, in either case modeled on the stock commedia trickster Arlecchino) will work for food. That is, the servant is so bedeviled by his growling tummy that he takes a second job. The problem is that the lives of his original employer and his new one quickly begin to intersect, meaning he has to juggle twice the work, keep them from learning of each other and, in effect, be two people in the same place at once. Furthermore, boss No. 1 isn’t really his boss, but the boss’s twin sister in disguise. And boss No. 2, who has killed the real first boss in a duel, is the lover of the now-disguised twin. There are also competing suitors, quarreling parents, and general confusions that serve as obstacles and hairpin turns. We’re on track to zip through some silly fun. All that’s needed is to put the pedal to the metal and steer sharply.
But that’s actually the hard part.
Comedy is hard, and farce harder still, relying moment by moment on fine points of timing, precision, propulsion, shading. Shanafelt is skilled and charming, but doesn’t quite get us in the palm of his hands. The portly Corden and the impish Bedard were lovable, antic tricksters; Shanafelt is likable, but seems less a harlequin (or jester, or buffoon, or clown) than a genial opportunist, or perhaps an insurance adjuster who fancies himself the life of the party.
Still, he has some fine moments, such as a great bit of physical business when he gets into a fight with himself, and he handles the built-in improv opportunities well. At one point in the performance I saw, he pleaded his hunger yet again, then asked the audience if anyone had brought a sandwich. “I did,” called a voice. Shanafelt clambered out to the middle of row F to find the man behind the voice. “You really brought a sandwich? What kind is it?” “Hummus,” came the reply. “Well, no wonder you haven’t eaten it,” Shanafelt deadpanned.
The rest of the ensemble is a mixed bag as well.
“They’ve tried, but they can’t make bricks any thicker,” Charlie Clench says of his own daughter Pauline. James C. Lawrence delivers that line and the rest of Charlie’s drolleries with an easy aplomb. As Pauline, Bonnie Auguston, thin though she is, plays thick (that is, stupid) beautifully, with a light, sweet touch. Alex Fox brings a champagne-dry wit to the role of Stanley Stubbers, Francis’ fastidious second “guvnor.” And Doren Elias, effective as the aggrieved father of one of Pauline’s suitors, really shines when he sings a tune with the band, proving what a shot in the arm energetic music can provide.
None of those performers tried to do too much. By contrast, Annie Rimmer plays a woman, Rachel, masquerading as her twin brother Roscoe, as a conglomeration of exaggerated posturing, strutting and shouting. Granted, when it comes to character disguises in period comedies, credibility isn’t really the point, but the lack of it shouldn’t be such a distraction. A similar principle holds for Travis Nodurft’s shambling, gibbering version of an aged waiter.
Perhaps, having seen this vehicle roaring along at a couple of the greatest theater companies in the world (the National Theatre production was shown in Portland on video as part the NT Live series, courtesy of Third Rail Rep), I’m being unduly harsh here. Or maybe the right guiding metaphor isn’t vehicles but one that’s present in the show itself, as Francis’ main motivation: appetite.
If you’re hungry for some fast-paced, funny, frothy farce, this One Man, Two Guvnors is nothing to turn your nose up at. But neither is it such a flavorful feast that you can’t help gorging yourself and still wanting more.
Clackamas Rep’s One Man, Two Guvnors continues through October 4 in the Niemeyer Center of Clackamas Community College. Ticket and schedule information are here.