The further theater strays from the mainstream entertainment spotlight, the more its creators look back to the various ‘have-to-sees’ for its commercial rejuvenation, especially outside of the gilded cage that is Broadway.
However, audiences demand prescience. As modern discourse becomes sleeker and more kinetic, the over-large gesticulations of classic theater stop resembling the beating heart of human drama and more closely pass us by as meaningless upper-class whimsy – a selling point for aging audience members. As a result, dramatists reinvent rather than reconstruct; and while this creative line of thought has saddled us with some pretty embarrassing reinterpretations of classics (*cough* Baz Lurhman *cough cough*), it can also produce a show like One Man, Two Guvnors.
The Little Lake Theater Company’s newest comedy is a bold, off-kilter experience that makes good on the oft-broken promise of so many classic adaptations: One Man, Two Guvnors is goofy, surprising, weird and, most importantly, actually fun.
Originally written by Richard Bean, the play follows Francis Henshall, a dimwitted thug working as a personal servant for dangerous thug Roscoe Crabbs (Jenny Malarky) before deciding to simultaneously work as a personal assistant to the posh, upper-class Stanely Stubbers (Connor McNelis). If this wasn’t complicated enough for a British Homer Simpson-type about town, Roscoe was actually murdered by Stubbers; it’s actually Rachel, Roscoe’s twin sister and Stubbers’ secret lover, that is posing as Roscoe.
Based on The Servant of Two Masters but set in mid-60’s Brighton, England, the opportunity for comedy here seems obvious. However, rather delightfully, Two Guvnors takes its well-trod setup as an opportunity to elevate zaniness to something more dangerous and lasting. The show’s liberal use of its collapsed 4th wall is more than a cutesy wink and nod at the audience – it’s an excuse to improvise, and to keep the show feeling energetic.
There was a pre-show warning from the Little Lake crew that the play would feature some risky audience participation. I made the assumption that this would be one more ‘let’s poke fun at this person in the gentlest manner humanly possible’ situation, and I was thrilled to have been proven wrong. The Little Lake contributor sitting beside me who unwittingly became an additional cast member during the play’s second act may have felt differently; although in all fairness, she seemed like she was having a good time.
The vitality of the play is thanks in equal part to the soundly-paced direction of TJ Firneno and the largely consistent cast. Jenny Malarkey’s Roscoe, who exudes raw, angry, English presence is a show highlight, as is Marsha Mayhak’s pitch-perfect portrayal of dullest-tool-in-the-shed Pauline Clench, who is engaged to Craig Ketchum’s pleasantly irritating vessel of pretention, Alan Dangle.
Two Guvnors has a ton of flamboyant style, but its relentlessness can sometimes feel like trying to cram an England into an American-sized hole. There’s some questionable accent work, and the play would do well with a touch more scene-setting. The fashion is evocative and most any locale is spotted with a picture of the Queen or a wandering patrolman, but the little details are missing. The show’s comedic centerpiece, a scene in which Francis desperately serves dinner to his two masters simultaneously, boasts little more than a table and two labeled doors. Combined with the variety of accent interpretations, Two Guvnors’ various spaces can feel strangely weightless and out of context.
The experience of Two Guvnors rests largely on the shoulders of Tom Protulipac’s Francis Henshall, the show’s protagonist and star of nearly every scene. Protulipac’s energy is boundless and infectious. His comedic skill isn’t indicative in how effortlessly he fits the character, but rather in how palpable his effort is. Protulipac exhausts himself in the role, sometimes literally throwing himself into the character with wild abandon. If most successful comedic performances are carefully choreographed ballets of witticism, Protulipac’s Henshall is a WWE Superstar of entertaining you. It’s a rare kind of performance that encapsulates the best parts of Two Guvnors as a whole.
Little Lake’s One Man, Two Guvnors is a legitimately wild ride and one of the greatest comedic productions in the Pittsburgh area this year. Besides being thoroughly enjoyable, it’s an excellent example of the way comedy can translate across centuries and a reminder that there’s almost always something new and exciting to be excavated from the old and celebrated.
One Man, Two Guvnors runs at the Little Lake Theatre in Canonsburg through July 15. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Special thanks to Little Lake for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of James Orr.