David Smith-English

The hound of the comic thrills

Clackamas Rep romps through Ken Ludwig's spoof of the Sherlock Homes mystery "Hound of the Baskervilles"

The man in the deerstalker hat and his biographer sidekick Dr. Watson live for the thrill of the hunt in Ken Ludwig’s screwball spoof of the most popular of Sherlock Holmes’ tales, Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.

The whodunit of this play, which has just opened at Clackamas Repertory Theatre, is less about the butler, the shady neighbor or estranged relative, but rather the grist that lies in which of the five actors is playing which of the 40 or so characters at any particular time. The cast, directed by David Smith-English, ebbs and flows on and off stage in a contradance with lightning-quick changes into detailed costumes. If it wasn’t for the ease and energetic joy the cast carries as the pace increases over the performance, you might almost think you were at a hockey match, where players often lose a few pounds in sweat per game. The puck doesn’t stop there, as the audience lapses into a meta meta suspension of disbelief and the real laughs kick in. By the end of the play the timing is rapid-fire and off-the-hinges absurd. In one of the final moments two people play three characters locked in an embrace, trading off hats and lines like they live in a 4D funny mirror.

Dennis Kelly and John San Nicolas in Ken Ludwig’s Sherlock Holmes spoof. Photo: Travis Nodurft

This Sherlock Holmes (John San Nicolas) does not wear the long drawn face of a nicotine addict who also likes tight fluffy lines of cocaine to fuel his broad assumptions from few details. Ludwig’s Sherlock is a stable middle-class armchair-professor hired gun who probably in a few decades of literature will inspire a James Bond-type genius, but with the contrast of being unavailably sexy. Dr. Watson (Dennis Kelly) is the detective chasing skirts. Watson, as narrator and chronicler to his trusty flatmate, is also in hot pursuit of female affection and Holmes’s approval at every turn and twist of the plot. His high-cheekbone smile of satisfaction looks to be the result of years of good marks at boarding school.

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One man, two guvs, one bumpy ride

Clackamas Rep takes out a racy comic sports car for a spin, and puts the pedal to the metal in fits and starts

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.

Off to the races: the company shifts into gear. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

Off to the races: the company shifts into gear. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

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.

Shanafelt and Rimmer, shifting to overdrive. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

Shanafelt and Rimmer, shifting to overdrive. Photo: Clackamas Repertory Theatre

“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.

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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.

 

America, America: ‘Carousel’ and ‘Best Little Whorehouse’

A pair of summer musical entertainments at Clackamas Rep and Broadway Rose reflect today's headlines

“Legislating is only a hobby for members of this Congress,” Charles M. Blow wrote in a Monday op-ed piece in the New York Times bemoaning the simultaneous shenanigans and torpor of the current do-nothing Congress. “Their full-time job is raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar of acceptable behavior.”

As it happens, I read Blow’s depressingly rational screed the morning after catching that grand old flimflam of a musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at Broadway Rose, and I couldn’t help thinking, What else is new?

The women's chorus in "Best Little Whorehouse." Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

The women’s chorus in “Best Little Whorehouse.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Whorehouse first opened on Broadway in 1978, and is based loosely on real events a few years earlier when a crusading television reporter started a campaign that finally shut the doors of the Chicken Ranch, a century-old institution of widely if reluctantly tolerated repute outside the rural town of LaGrange, Texas. The resulting political fallout, at least in the fictionalized version onstage, is less a matter of actuality than of appearances, which in the topsy-turvy world of politics have a way of becoming reality. Life has been rolling along pretty much as humanly usual, with most of the human appetites being accommodated in some sort of agreed-upon manner closely associated to a wink and a nod and a turning of official heads in the opposite direction. But times are changing. Raise enough of a stink and eventually someone’ll be forced to do something about it, not so much to stop the stink as to stop the noise and keep the incumbents safely in office.

Whorehouse isn’t the best musical to come roaring down the two-lane blacktop of rural Americana, but it knows what it wants to do and it does it well, and as I hadn’t seen it in a number of years I was happy to make its acquaintance again, especially in this agreeable production directed (as was Broadway Rose’s pert and winning revival of The Music Man earlier in the summer) by the stage-smart Peggy Taphorn. Like most musical comedies it’s really mostly about its surfaces, but it does make a difference what’s underneath, and Whorehouse survives partly because its book latches onto some enduring American themes: a strong libertarian bent, an equally strong moralistic fervor, a thirst for fame and power and the various pleasures of the flesh, and the destruction derby that occurs when the soft tissue of human desire meets the driving metal of religious extremism and unshackled careerism. The resulting ruckus brings to mind such political and religious fast-shuffle hall of famers as Wilbur Mills and Lyndon Johnson and Aimee Semple McPherson, and the shenanigans of such latter-day politician/entertainer/perpetrator/scolds as Michele Bachmann, Elliott Spitzer, Sarah Palin, Anthony Weiner, Glenn Beck, and that comeback champ Newt Gingrich. Ooh, they love to do the little sidestep: It’s like watching Molière performed on a pedal steel guitar.

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