BWW Review: ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS Equals Too Much Fun at Circle Theatre
I have a friend-several friends, in fact-who drive for Uber. And when they're not driving for Uber, they're delivering food for Grubhub; when not doing that, they're off to fix a leaky faucet or install new blinds for TaskRabbit. On rare occasions, typically on or near the first of the month, they must balance all three jobs at once, collecting tips that just might come out to the federal minimum wage when all is said and done. Such is life in the age of the gig economy.
What I'm saying is: the farcical premise of someone attempting to balance two or more jobs at once while risking losing all of them has moved out of the realm of the sitcom and into the lived experiences of the younger generations. And it is this familiarity-at once so ridiculous yet so relatable-that Circle Theatre milks for all its worth in their latest production of Richard Bean's ONE, TWO GUVNORS, blending humor and heart for a rollicking good time. The play runs through March 7.
Bean's 2011 script is an adaptation of the 1743 Italian comedy SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS, in which a ravenous and profoundly poor man finds himself in the employ of two rival lords. Bean places the action of his farce in 1960s Brighton, England, and the lords here are more akin to gang leaders, but the stock characters of the commedia dell'arte remain: the boisterous harlequin, the woman disguised as a man, the doddering fool, the narcissistic love interest, and quite a few more. But audiences need not be familiar with all these esoteric details before taking their seats; as mentioned earlier, the story has become a stock plot in sitcoms for decades. Bean's script also allows for a great deal of improvisation, in which actors-typically the lead servant, here named Francis Henshall-can keep viewers up to speed on the breakneck action happening just feet away from them.
Under the more than capable direction of Joel Ferrell, ONE MAN takes off with all the speed and excitement of motorcycle, exhilarating and surprising audiences as nearly every possible turn. This deft hand keeps the play from becoming mired in the methodical unfolding of its expository scenes, a problem faced by nearly all contemporary farces. But Ferrell keeps the rhythm quick, knowing when the provide viewers with much needed silences and when to overwhelm them witty barbs and outlandish gags one on top the other. It is one of the rare productions where the show feels shorter than its actual running time, a good quality to have in a show that demands as much attention as it does a fondness for the ribald.
Perhaps it's an interesting bit of irony that the play's lead actor finds himself juggling two jobs simultaneously in real life. Circle Theatre Artistic Director Matthew Gray stars as Francis Henshall, a creative decision that might initially appear as a bit of stunt casting before realizing that the role simply could not have been done any other way. At the very least, certainly not any better. Gray exudes a natural charm and friendliness, quickly winning over audiences despite the fact that Francis is quite the lazy lout. His improvisational moments-of which there are quite literally too many to count since the number can change every night-never feel forced or unnatural, and Gray maintains an easy rapport with the audience without ever letting them forget that he's the one in charge. During the performance I attended, one smug viewer tried to offer up a hungry Francis an old hummus sandwich, yet Gray committed to the bit as if it had been scripted from the beginning. Occasionally, a reference to some contemporary event or pop cultural artifact might shake up a sense of the play's time, but many may find such moments more clever than distracting. In addition to his quick wit and command of language, Gray fully immerses himself in the physicality required of the role, beating himself up and balancing precariously placed platters of food without a single missed beat. The mastery needed to accomplish this seamless flow is an achievement in and of itself.
Ferrell has also provided Gray with an incredibly talented ensemble cast, one in which every member is as committed to taking risks and raising the bar as their leading player is. Jenna Anderson plays Rachel, a young woman who disguises herself as her brother Roscoe who has recently been murdered by Rachel's boyfriend Stanley. Disguised as Roscoe, it is Rachel who initially hires Francis as her minder (I promise these plot developments become much clearer in the context of the show). Last seen in Circle Theatre's A 3D ADVENTURE, Anderson has already shown herself to be one of the sharpest comedic actresses in the metroplex, and the role of Rachel allows her to show off a larger range of abilities and emotions. She can slip quickly in and out of pathos and humor, desperately professing her love one moment before transforming herself into a model of masculinity with a simple voice modulation and a change in posture. As Rachel's beloved Stanley (who is Francis's second employer), John-Michael Marrs is delightfully puffed with hot air, regaling characters with tales from his boarding school boyhood in a velvety matter-of-fact manner. Marrs also plays up his character's scripted yet barely concealed homoeroticism without turning the character into the wrong kind of stereotype, carefully placing his beats before moving on with an assured confidence.
Similarly, Lee George gives perhaps one of the play's more underappreciated performances as Rachel's confidante Lloyd. Like Marrs, George conveys his character's masculinity while also gleefully subverting the very concept, delivering knee-slapping one-liners to the audience with a twinkle in his eye. Like Anderson, Parker Gray returns to Circle Theatre after A 3D ADVENTURE, pulling double duty as the lovestruck actor Alan and the somehow-still-living octogenarian waiter Alfie. Parker Gray excels when channeling his energies into an over-the-top role, showing a level of physical commitment that rivals Matthew Gray's. At times, this energy can come across as unfocused in his moments as Alan, but he steals nearly every scene in which he plays Alfie, lending the character an unpredictability that still feels controlled and (somehow) natural. Nicole Renee Johnson makes her DFW professional debut with an endearing sweetness as Alan's love interest Pauline, exaggerating her character's almost unbelievable stupidity while tempering it with a debutante's innocent naivete.
Bob Lavallee's set design combines the representational with the practical, using a limited number of decorated walls and panels that can be rearranged to create the play's numerous locations. Since the set changes occur in full view of the audience with the assistance of the entire cast, the effect is like watching a family argue over how to correctly assemble a jigsaw puzzle. These changes, while amusing, also take place with the frenetic energy of a Benny Hill sketch, which prevents the creative gimmick from becoming too stale or too much of a break from the main action of the story. Additionally, the floor and some of the walls surrounding the stage are covered with what appear to be enlarged pages from British tabloids, an inspired choice that brings the audience immediately into the time period of the play while also foreshadowing the show's salacious sexual politics.
ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS is-with all its chaos and decadence-a welcome relief in such a "politically charged, highly stressful, emotionally draining time" (to use Farrell's own words from his director's note). Circle Theatre has granted the DFW area with a mindless yet smartly constructed play that acts as an escape from the tumult of our own hectic lives while introducing us to some of the incredible talent that help make up our community.