Bringing a little bit of 1960s England to the Woolfe Street Playhouse, the Village Repertory Co. is embarking on their latest season with a knockout of a play. One Man, Two Guvnors premiered just four years ago in London and the following year on Broadway. Starring Late Late Show host James Corden, it won rave reviews for it’s classic British humor, improv, and even a house skiffle band (more on that later). Suffice it to say, it’s an ambitious way to launch Village Rep’s 15th anniversary season.
“How do we kick off this celebration?” asks Keely Enright, director of the play as well as the company’s producing artistic director. “This play is a perfect way to do it. Some years are more serious, others are like a party, and this play is all about the party.”
“The awesome thing about this play is that it’s a comedy, but a comedy with a house band,” says Enright. Before the show and during each scene change, Cory Webb will lead a skiffle band — think washboards, jugs, and kazoos — that will entertain the audience.
“One Man is as much about the music of the 1960s as it is about the comedy of the 1960s.”
One Man, Two Guvnors is Richard Bean’s adaptation of Italian Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte Servant of Two Masters. In Bean’s reworking, an out-of-work band leader named Francis becomes employed by Roscoe Crabbe, but, plot twist, Crabbe is really his sister Rachel in disguise. Double plot twist: Francis picks up another gig working for upper-class criminal Stanley Stubbers, who is actually Rachel’s lover and the real Roscoe’s murderer. As one might guess, hijinks ensue
In Benny Hill-like fashion, the play is full of quirky characters and absurd scenarios. Often confusing himself along the way, Francis strives to tend to both Rachel (a.k.a. Roscoe) and Stanley, and at times he must go to great lengths to avoid being caught by the other master. Francis’s dilemma reaches its peak during a long scene in the middle of the play, in which he must simultaneously serve each boss lunch while they eat in separate dining rooms of the same pub, all while Roscoe and Stanley are unaware of each other.
“It is one of the most choreographed scenes I’ve ever rehearsed,” says actor Robbie Thomas, who plays Francis and is also the company’s associate artistic director. “The precision that is needed to make it successful is extreme.”
Teralyn Tanner, who plays the saucy Dolly, the object of Francis’s affection, is not even in the scene, but says, “It is by far my favorite moment, especially in the hands of those actors.”
With a play that uses slapstick British humor, Enright knew just who to cast for some of the show’s pivotal roles. “There are a lot of Village Repertory regulars,” Enright says, but for Two Guvnors she focused on finding “the funniest guys in our company” in order to give an already witty script an extra edge. She looked to two of the stars of Village Rep’s 2014 smash hit Spamalot, Thomas and Brad Leon, to tackle the slapstick comedy.
As for Tanner, she’s performed similar British roles, including the hapless housewife Shirley Valentine in Shirley Valentine with Midtown Productions — a role for which she won a 2014 Theatre Charleston Award for Best Actress in a Play. Such experience she says has helped prepare her for playing the role of Dolly. “I’ve played [British characters] before in other productions and I adore British humor,” she says. “However, [Dolly] tends to be way more together, confident, and sexier than other characters I’ve played.”
Thomas says the role of Francis, is one “I’ve thrown myself into with great zeal. He’s a bit immature, a little dense, and incredibly endearing. The physical comedy of the show is a workout all alone.”
One challenge in store for the cast are the sections of improv written into the play. Specific characters — such as Francis — have scenes where suggestions from the audience are required.
“The improv in the show is one of the most intriguing parts,” Thomas says. “We rehearse several scenarios but even a room full of some of the best creative minds I know isn’t able to fully prepare you for what may come out of an audience member’s mouth on any given night.”
Enright echoes Thomas saying, “You have to be ready because you don’t know what the audience is going to say.” She adds that the audience must continually be aware of the performers, as they never quite “know when one of them are breaking that fourth wall. You have to be on your toes. You can be involved if you want to be.”
The improv elements as well as the live band in this show also align with the mission of the Village Repertory Co. in breaking down barriers between the performers and the audience. While the set for this play is somewhat traditional — as opposed to their last play Lungs which used a theatre in-the-round set — Enright and her team sought to “create an interesting experience that isn’t too boring or distant.”
Ambitious as it is, Enright and Thomas needed a play that could set the tone for the Village Repertory Co.’s 15th season, and they believe they’ve found it with One Man, Two Guvnors. “It’s a huge comedy that hasn’t been done in South Carolina,” says Thomas. “With Keely’s direction and this cast’s tireless efforts, it was a challenge that we gleefully accepted.”