Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
One Man, Two Guvnors
Summarizing the plot of a farce like this is mostly impossible and actually unnecessary. The twists and turns are countless; and the plot plays second fiddle to all the slapstick falls, the crazy chases, the closing/opening doors, the flung food, and unsuspecting audience members becoming full-cast members. But to set the scene, an arranged marriage between the ditzy daughter (Pauline Clench) of a mob boss (Charlie "The Duck" Clench) and an overly dramatic thespian son (Alan Dangle) of Charlie's sleazy solicitor (Harry Dangle, whom we hear a got the Mau Mau off clean) is set awry by the appearance of Pauline's would-be gangster fiancé Roscoe, who everyone thought was murdered. Turns out, he was, and the newly arrived to-be-husband is the dead man's twin sister in disguise (Rachel Crabbe dressed as Roscoe). Pauline's true love (Stanley Stubbers) and Rachel/Roscoe are both in need of a servant to move into a local pub their over-sized trunks (identical of course), to iron their clothes, and to get important letters from the post office. And so enters Francis Henshall, and the true fun and over-the-top silliness, as mentioned earlier, begins.
As Francis, Doug Santana truly commands the stage every time he appears. What he does with every inch of his body in moves and positions that defy description is phenomenal and gut-splittingly funny. We howl as he uses every possible manner of ridiculous bodily ploy to move Stanley's over-sized trunk. We almost choke in laughter as he serves a multi-course meal to two impatient, demanding masters who are dining in two rooms (behind closed doors that loudly and repeatedly slam, of course) and serves most of the meal to himself via a mouth stuffed to its choking gills and a bowl held by a woman plucked from the audience (herself a whole act of hilarity not to be missed). Even with all the clowning, we come to care for and root for this Charlie Chaplin guy before us, especially as he falls in love (in between all his serving and swerving). Francis melts when around the soap-box speechifying, feminist bookkeeper Dolly, who is also sexually craved and more than eager to share her tongue with Francis. (Dolly is Pear Theatre's Artistic Director Betsy Kruse Craig, who crosses local, theatrical neighborhoods to be a lip-smacking, hip-strutting riot for Palo Alto Players.)
Each of the near-dozen cast draws many laughs through individual antics and quirks galore. Drew Benjamin Jones provides repeated stop-action moments as the would-be actor Alan, who quotes from almost every stage icon you can possibly name while sending his every limb into protruding thrusts and poses that defy description. His Woolworth-purchased pen-knife leads to one of the funniest among many competing, funny sequences.
Brad Satterwhite draws chuckle after chuckle playing the preppy boy Stanley who is one of the demanding guvnors, while Katie O'Bryon Champion is Francis' other command-spouting employer, the disguised twin Rachel, whose butch persona as her dead brother Roscoe is hilarious. Ray D'Ambrosio is the picture-perfect stock-character image of the small-fry gangster, Charlie "The Duck," full of his own bloated bluster. His daughter Pauline causes us both to laugh and to cringe as Michelle Skinner plays the young, frilly-acting woman in big-flowered, petticoat skirt who keeps answering others' questions with non-sensical, naive answers that cause them to roll eyes, but who in the end proves she is much smarter than others give her credit.
But standing applause must go to Chris Mahle as the ancient waiter Alfie, an arthritic-bent skeleton of a man whose mouth is frozen in a position totally impossible for most humans and who walks in a way that every step seems surely his last. Alfie and the younger waiter Gareth (a serious but in a funny way Bryan Moriaty) trudge up the back stairs course after course of the most outrageous, over-the-top lunch imaginable, with Francis orchestrating with much difficulty and confusion the service to his two guvnors, who still do not know about each other. With food and bodies both flying through the air, the scene gets crazier and more outlandish with each passing course. In the end, how Alfie et al survive the scene without multiple cuts and bruises is a miracle.
Interspersed throughout the scenes are appearances of the evening's opening five-member band who play a curious mash of country, bluegrass, rock, and Celtic sounds (complete with a washboard-and-bell percussionist). As scenes shift behind a closed curtain during the evening, the band is supplemented by cameo solos by other cast members on such instruments as ukulele, xylophone, and bare chest. Grant Olding's music moves from first-act skiffle (blended, mixed-genre tunes popular in post-war England) to second-act harmonies and lyrics that have more than passing familiarities with the British boy bands of the 1960s. A particular crowd favorite is the three women cast members appearing in sparkly gold dresses and silvery glistening heels to sing "Lighten Up and Lay Low Feat" with all the appropriate '60s girl-group, smooth moves of hands and hips. Positioned on both sides upstage, the sweater-and-tie wearing band becomes a vital part of the fun and frolic.
The split-second timing of opened doors that send Alfie flying, of actors stumbling into a snowball of bodies, and of countless jokes that depend on both a "straight-man" feeding the opportunity for the quick response by the near-by "stooge" is the work of director Patrick Klein, who deserves his own sustained applause of accolades. He also has designed a series of settings that have British flavor and humor ingrained in them, all further populated with comic-filled properties designed by Scott Ludwig that range from chicken meatballs to the heads of fish a la carte. Patricia Tyler's costumes and Gwyneth Price Panos' wigs and make-up bring the commedia dell'arte stock characters into the 1963 stereotypes we love to remember and that quickly draw grins. The sound effects of Grant Huberty's sound design and the lighting of Ben Hemmen complete an overall masterfully planned and executed production whose only purpose is to entertain us to the max.
In fact, no great morals, insights or meanings emerge from Richard Bean's One Man, Two Guvnors. What does emerge from the Lucie Stern Auditorium after the Palo Alto Players production is an audience with aching jaws and sides that are exhausted from laughing.
One Man, Two Guvnors, through June 30, 2019, at Palo Alto Players, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. For tickets and information, visit www.paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.