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REVIEW: The Farce is the Thing in One Man, Two Guvnors (Yellow Tree Theatre)

Elise Langer, Elena Glass, and Marika Proctor in Yellow Tree Theatre’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors. Photo by Justin Cox.

Yellow Tree Theatre is closing its ninth season with Richard Bean’s Tony Award-winning comedy One Man, Two Guvnors. This play is an English adaptation of Carlo Goldini’s 18th Century Italian commedia dell’arte farce Servant to Two Masters. The show originally played on the London stage and opened on Broadway in 2011. The comedy won multiple awards, including the Critics Circle Award, Drama Desk Awards, and several Tony Awards ,including Best Actor for late-night television host James Corden. This production is directed by Anne Byrd, who deservedly won an Ivey Award for her farcical direction of Yellow Tree’s production of The 39 Steps; the result of all these parts is an exceedingly gleeful romp.

Dolly (Elena Glass) and Francis (Jason Ballweber) share a sweet moment. Photo by Justin Cox.

The show is set in the early 1960s in Brighton, England. The lead character, Francis (Jason Ballweber, also the Artistic Director of Four Humors Theater), is a skiffle musician who was recently let go by his band. Needing both money and food, he takes a job as a “handler” or servant for the gangster Roscoe (Marika Proctor). Unbeknownst to Francis, “Roscoe” is actually Roscoe’s twin sister, since the real Roscoe was killed by Rachel’s fiancé Stanley Stubbers (Ryan Lear). Before his death, Roscoe was engaged to Pauline (Elise Langer), the daughter of gangster Charlie Clench, as part of a business agreement wherein Charlie agreed to pay certain sums to Roscoe. Rachel desperately needs money so she and Stanley can flee to Australia, and thus pretends to be Roscoe so she can enforce the marriage contract and collect the agreed-to money. Pauline, however, believes that Roscoe is dead and becomes engaged to Alan Dangle (Neal Skoy), an overwrought amateur actor who is the son of Harry Dangel (Peter Simmons), Charlie’s criminal defense attorney. Both Pauline and the overwrought Alan are distraught to learn the Roscoe is alive and that Pauline is required to marry him. Charlie also has an assistant named Dolly (Elena Glass) who is taken with Francis and vice versa.

Dolly (Elena Glass) and Francis (Jason Ballweber) not trapped in a sticky situation…for the moment. Photo by Justin Cox.

Confused yet? The plot’s twists and turns get even funnier. While running an errand for Rachel, Francis runs into the disguised Stanley, who is hiding from the police. Stanley hires Francis to be his assistant. Francis is delighted to now have two employers – the two guvnors of the title –so he can earn extra money and perhaps eat. Much of the humor in the show comes from Francis striving to meet the needs of both masters without letting either master know about the other. The show is full of shtick comedy with cast members going in and out of doors, near misses, etc. Francis runs about ineffectively trying to serve both masters and erroneously leads both Stanley and Rachel to believe that the other is dead. Some of the best bits are the audience-interaction scenes, though I strongly suspect one hilarious audience member was a plant. However, the frenetic pace of the first half of the show runs out of steam near the end of the last act. The slowing pace allowed too much time to telegraph the play’s next move, minimizing the comedic effects in the last 10 minutes.

Ballweber does an impressive job bearing the brunt of the comedy with his frantic pace on stage with entrances and exits. He has a knack for bringing out the best in audience members. There is a lot of physical humor in the show, including repeated bawdy crotch-grabbing jokes. Lear delivers some very effective and clever lines as the stuffy Stanley. Both Skoy’s overwrought Alan and Langer’s ditzy Pauline are a delight. Proctor’s Rachel is often thrust into an almost narrator role with very necessary clarifications that the Francis character is unable to provide. Glass’s feminist Dolly is a refreshing character who simply does not get enough stage time.

Brant Miller plays the peppy band leader who, along other cast members with skiffle instruments, opens and closes the play in addition to playing during music during the scene changes. Despite the slower pace at the end, the first two-thirds of the play is utterly hilarious leaving the audience roaring with laughter.

One Man, Two Guvnors runs through May 14 at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, MN.

Bev Wolfe