In the middle of the first act of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” Jody Kujawa sternly warns a couple of audience members, “This is my show.”
Truer words have ne’er been spoken on the Playhouse stage.
The eye of a hurricane is the calm center of a massive swirling storm. But what if instead you discovered there was a tornado in the middle of a hurricane? Meteorologically that might be impossible, but it is an apt metaphor for the riotous comedy that opened the Playhouse’s season Thursday night with Kujawa in the role of a lifetime.
Kujawa plays Francis Henshall, an easily confused chap, who is employed by two men (aka “guvnors”), who also happen to be criminals: Rachel Crabbe (Cheryl Skafte), who is disguised as her dead twin brother, and Stanley Stubbers (Jason Skorich), her lover, who killed the brother and who is now in hiding, thereby setting the stage for comic confusion and complication galore. As gangsters go, these blokes are not exactly in the mold of the Sopranos, even if a recurring theme of the evening is trying to turn each of the males on stage into a lower-case one.
“One Man, Two Guvnors” is replete with a pair of twins, false names, mistaken identities, a really nice Heracles joke, a whole host of non sequiturs aimed directly at my funny bone and a passel of perpetual punch lines incessantly milked for all they are worth. At the center of all this chaos is Kujawa’s Francis, who keeps the audience apprised of his convoluted thought processes every step of the way, has a gem of a moment when he fights himself, and frequently enlists audience participation in both word and deed. It is these improvisational moments that play to Kujawa’s strong suit as a comedian and guarantee that no two performances of this show will ever be alike. If anything, I would suspect each performance will be funnier than the previous one.
Ultimately, the plot is not really a driving force here, replaced by an overwhelming desire to see what Kujawa does — and says — next. Of the 10 biggest laughs on opening night, most of them came straight out of Kujawa’s mouth rather than from the scripted page. The second act is not as funny as the first, in part because there is simply no way that is humanly possible, but also because things have to slow down to have everything straightened out in the end (you look at who ends up with who, and for some reason it is does not seem right). Kujawa is half the show and most of the laughs, but that is not because the rest of the cast is not equal to the maelstrom of madness.
Jonathan Manchester plays Alfie, an elderly gent who is a percussionist waiter, would-be bottle opener and sometimes juggler. Luke Moravec is Alan Dangle, an aspiring actor constantly waxing theatrical with overwrought gesticulations. Scorich’s Stanley gets big laughs in a delightfully demented duel about death that reaches an alliterative apex that is truly transcendent, while Skafte achieves the same sort of response with a science lesson and a hysterical crying jag. Actually, there is a lot of crying in this comedy, especially during the scene changes whenever the lovelorn are forced to remove chairs or trunks from the stage.
Whether intentional or not, director Benjamin S. Kutschied’s cast represents a vivid cross-section of English comedic traditions. Stanley Stubbers shows up from a P.G. Wodehouse play, Kendall Linn’s Charlie Clench and Keith Shelbourne’s Harry Dangle would be at home in any Ealing Comedy, Alan Dangle makes explicit reference to those wacky “angry young man” plays of the period, and Gabriel Mayfield’s Jamaican patois as Lloyd Boateng is universal and timeless. Louisa Scorich’s air-headed Pauline Clench and Jennie Ross in the servant-wiser-than-the-master role of Dolly come straight out of a Swinging Sixties sex comedy, while Mike Pederson’s Gareth is clearly channeling a French waiter a la Monty Python.
For those interested in the theatrical pedigree of the show, “One Man, Two Guvnors” is an English adaptation by Richard Bean of a 1743 Commedia dell’arte-style comedy play by the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni entitled “Servant of Two Masters” (“Il servitore di due padroni”). The play is set in the English resort town of Brighton in 1963, and the program includes a glossary of terms that translates the likes of “minder,” “horror bollocks” and “shrapnel” for a contemporary colonial audience.
In the grand tradition of ye olde English music hall, the set design by Curtis Phillips consists mostly of painted drops, and Fred Rogers’ costume designs reflect traditional Commedia dress without dressing the characters like caricatures.
The evening also includes songs by Grand Olding, played before the show and between the scenes by a four piece band ensconced stage right, with Patrick Colvin supplying both the piano and vocals, except when the cast is given the opportunity to warble a couple of tunes. The songs are more like a soundtrack than a Broadway score, complimenting the tale rather than commenting on it directly (e.g., “I.O.U., “The End of the Pier Blues”), played with a wide variety of instrumental combinations and tending to sound a bit more like rockabilly than skiffle.
Because of the improvisational opportunities in the show and the complicated physical shtick, Kujawa is walking something of a tightrope wire throughout the evening. Usually it is bad form to hope the actors mess up on stage, but if you are lucky a glass will get broken or a chicken ball will bounce the wrong way, and dollars to doughnuts you will be talking for a week about whatever Kujawa comes up with to regain his balance and get back to sprinting down that tightrope.
If you go:
What: “One Man, Two Guvnors” by Richard Bean, directed by Benjamin S. Kutschied
Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday, and Sept. 25-27; 2 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 28
Tickets: $25 adults, $15 youth, students. Call (218) 733-7555 or visit duluthplayhouse.org