One Man Two Guvnors

ArtsWatch Weekly: Framing Wordstock, and other tall tales

Hitting the books with Portland's literary festival, First Thursday, gamesmanship on the Oregon Trail, coyote on a fence

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” the movie director Jean-Luc Godard famously said, and that’s as good a prompt as any to remind you that Wordstock, Portland’s annual orgy of all things literary, is coming up Saturday at the Portland Art Museum and other easily walkable venues along the South Park Blocks.

Take a deep breath. The list of writers taking part, local and far-flung, is long, and this is just a few of them: Diana Abu-Jaber, Sherman Alexie, Nicholson Baker, April Baer, David Biespiel, Carrie Brownstein, Peter Ames Carlin, Liz Crain, Monica Drake, Brian Doyle, Zach Dundas, Renée Ahdieh, Rabih Alameddine, Rivka Galchen, Yaa Gyasi, Karen Karbo, Shawn Levy, Gigi Little, Richard Russo, Sallie Tisdale, Colson Whitehead. It’s a veritable library of contemporary writing in the flesh.

Hangin' in the balcony at last year's Wordstock. Photo: Angie Jabine

Hangin’ in the balcony at last year’s Wordstock. Photo: Angie Jabine

Ah, but what if your story doesn’t have an end? I thought of that yesterday, flying home to Portland from the East Coast, when I boarded a connecting flight in Chicago at just about the time the sixth game of the World Series was beginning. The Cubs, of course, were in the thing, for the first time since 1945, and the Cleveland club (itself a longtime also-ran) was threatening to walk away with the rubies. Spirits were high on the plane as Chicagoans, many of them rabid fans, walked on and began to fill the cabin: It was a full flight, with no empty seats.

Continues…

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.

 

Clackamas Rep plays its trump card

J. Pierrepont Finch learns how to succeed in business in the Rep's revival and becomes a man for all political seasons

To anyone convinced that government ought to be run like a business, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has arrived just in time to slap that silly idea right out of your skull. It does run like a business, and lord help us all.

As we hurtle willy-nilly into the depths of the national political season, we’ll be hearing that business trope a lot. Goodness, we even have a billionaire businessman leading the charge toward the ballot box, building his campaign on bluster, bullying, and the quaint notion that he’s a populist outsider crashing the gates of the establishment in the name of the people. And The Great Hairscape is nothing new. “After all, the chief business of the American people is business,” declared Calvin Coolidge, the man who presided over the giddy buildup to the Great Depression.

Jameson Tabor as J. Pierrepont Finch, Sydney Weir (center) as Smitty, Cassi Q. Kohl as Rosemary. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Jameson Tabor as J. Pierrepont Finch, Sydney Weir (center) as Smitty, Cassi Q. Kohl as Rosemary. Photo: Travis Nodurft

How To Succeed, which is playing through August 23 in a generally handsome and well-sung revival at Clackamas Repertory Theatre, sees things differently. A hit 1961 Broadway musical based on a best-selling 1952 satirical book written in his ample spare time by a successful and somewhat cynical Madison Avenue ad man, it declares a different truth about the modern corporate world: nobody’s in charge, the place is full of yes men, inertia and the covering of one’s posterior are the chief orders of the day, nobody in management knows the slightest thing about the actual product, and no amount of sucking up can be considered shameless if you want to rise to the top.

It’s not business itself that’s in question, mind you: wickets, we can rest assured, the manufacture and sale of which are the core concern of the corporate world of How To Succeed, are vital little doodads, and everyone should have a few spares stashed away in the old croquet set. The worm in the apple’s the ineptitude of the whole process. A bureaucracy, apparently, is a bureaucracy, whether it’s government or business, and the person who figures out how it doesn’t work can scramble to the top of the heap. Not that he or she will be able to do much of anything but sit up there, emperor of futility. But sitting there has its rewards. Dilbert for president!

Or J. Pierrepoint Finch, the eager-beaver hustler at the center of How To Succeed, whose dizzying two-week ascent from window washer to chairman of the board of World Wide Wicket Company is aided and abetted by his scrupulous attention to the advice of a business how-to book. That that’s the only thing he’s scrupulous toward is part of the comedy’s joke, and excellent preparation for a career in politics. The play ends with speculation about Pierrepoint and the U.S. presidency, a position that would trump even chairman of the board.

The company: a little song, a little dance, a little satire. Photo: Travis Nodurft

The company: a little song, a little dance, a little satire. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Jameson Tabor stars as Finch at Clackamas Rep, playing the little schemer like a knife with an ingratiating edge, and a demeanor that falls somewhere between Matthew Broderick (who starred in the 1995 Broadway revival) and a googly-eyed Don Knotts. Finchie’s supposed to be shallow and irritating: nobody notices, or minds, until it belatedly becomes clear that he’s aced almost everyone out.

How To Succeed is a period piece, very much of its Mad Men times, and there are things that go along with that beyond Alva Bradford’s sharp costumes and Chris Whitten’s art-deco, Miami-colored set. There are no persons of color darker than a light tan in the executive headquarters, and no women executives. The women are secretaries or bimbos or both, and even the most ambitious among them aspire to marry a successful executive and preside over a suburban household while their husbands go into the city to slay dragons every day. On the other hand, what’s old is new: the remnants of that idea are likely to pop up during this grueling presidential-nomination campaign, too. (Or have already: even Fox News woman broadcasters, it seems, will be put in their place if they get too uppity with their questions.)

It’s key to remember that How To Succeed, created by the Guys and Dolls team of composer Frank Loesser and writer Abe Burrows (with a couple of others), is a comedy and was never meant as an exposé of American business. As a new Broadway musical, it played to houses packed with people who worked at corporations like World Wide Wicket: the audience was in on the joke. Like all good satire, How To Succeed was only a slight stretch of a broadly perceived reality. The play dug deep into the weak spots of the corporate system, and laid out an extreme-case scenario of how to manipulate it, and it was funny because everyone knew that even if it wasn’t quite plausible, it was possible. Decades later, anyone who paid even an ounce of attention to the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 can see the seed of the disaster right here, planted with a song and a smirk and a dance.

Jonathan Quesenberry as Bud Frump: it's not easy being green with envy. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Jonathan Quesenberry as Bud Frump: it’s not easy being green with envy. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Director Don Elias’s cast at Clackamas Rep is blessed with a solid crop of musical comediennes and reliable character actors. Cassi Q. Kohl as the secretary Rosemary, who falls at first glance for Finch and seems too smart to be so dumb, turns in yet another appealingly polished performance, as do Sidney Weir as her sidekick Smitty, Amanda Valley as super-efficient Miss Jones, and Teresa Renee as the bundle of trouble Hedy LaRue, who’d be the sadder but wiser girl except she’s not sad about a bit of it, and not so wise, either. Jon Quesenberry is a lightly and likably detestable villain as ineffectual mama’s-boy Bud Frump, nephew of the big boss Mr. Biggley (Mark Pierce); good comic turns also come from Britton Adams as Bratt, the personnel guy (these days he’d be “human resources”) and Tony Stroh in the dual roles of nibbly Mr. Trimble and brassy Wally Womper, chairman of the board.

How To Succeed is a clever play, but it’s dated in ways that Loesser and Burrows’ brilliant Guys and Dolls, which has the sophisticated structure of a Shakespeare comedy and the sass of a purely American style, isn’t. The songs are tuneful but, unlike the hit-fest score of Guys and Dolls, more efficient than memorable (the closest thing to a standard is probably I Believe in You). And even with all the rapid action – and, in this production, Megan Misslin’s energetic choreography that assures a constant flow of physical action – the story’s a little brittle; you might find yourself after a while checking in and out.

But not too much. In its own way, this is a classic American tale, too, if not quite a classic of American theater, and its time has circled back again. It’s not hard to imagine a ticket of J. Pierrepont Finch and Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man, though Finch might have to settle for the vice presidential slot. Prof Hill’s proven that if you’re brash enough, you don’t even need to know the territory. And that brand seems to be selling like hotcakes in the political marketplace these days.

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How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying continues through August 23 at Clackamas Rep. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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In a welcome trend, cabaret’s been popping up here and there in town lately, and Clackamas Rep has a good one lined up for Aug. 16. Singer and actress Meredith Kaye Clark will perform Joni Mitchell’s classic album Blue in a concert setting, accompanying herself on guitar and with Mont Chris Hubbard on piano. The same show sold out a trio of recent performances at Portland Center Stage. Info here.

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Clackamas Rep will close its season September 10-October 4 with the Northwest premiere of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s smash 2011 adaptation of Carlo Goldini’s 18th century farce The Servant of Two Masters. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival scored a massive hit in 2009 with its own freewheeling adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters. This material’s a potential gold mine.

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