A servant with two masters is coming to Court Theatre, seeking to amuse the crowd with his hilarious story of life as a “double spy.” It is time to experience suspense, tension, and laughter, as the comedy, One Man, Two Guvnors, written by Richard Beans and adapted from Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century comedy The Servant of Two Masters, will be showing at Court until June 12th. Directed by Charles Newell, the play features a group of experienced and exceptional Chicago artists and actors such as Erik Hellman (who returns to Court after appearing in The Good Book), Elizabeth Ledo, and Alex Goodrich, all of whom are incredibly attuned to the emotional registers and subtle demands of their roles. It is a splendid mixture of wildness, silliness, and joy that takes the audience through a journey of laughter, enjoyment, and contemplation, absorbing us into their creative drama.
An explosive narrative rife with buffoonery, tension, and love, the play aptly begins with the flurried activity of an engagement party. This scene is saturated with noise, action, and the expressive, over-exaggerated, almost campy performances by the actors. The festivities are interrupted by a revelation: Francis (Timothy Edward Kane) has been acting as a double agent; he’s been working as a minder for both Roscoe (Elizabeth Ledo) and Stanley (Eric Hellman). This interruption marks a shift in the play’s tone from one of pure comedy to something darkened by more tension and drama. It is here that we see Charles Newell stretching his directorly vision, working to produce a form of theater whose genre boundaries haven’t yet been staked out. Timothy Kane’s Francis is crucial to Newell’s vision, shuttling between and challenging the boundaries of the comedic and dramatic modes. He is constantly craving and devouring food, even if its source is the trash bin or if its intended consumer is one of his masters. Even a letter can become a source of pleasure, and the audience watches him greedily devour a sheet of paper piece by piece.
One of the more serious moments in the play comes when Dolly (Hollis Resnik)–Francis’s love interest—performs a monologue embodying feminist ideals, which is the first time the play explicitly takes up these themes. However, the connection between this speech and her romantic relationship with Francis is not quite clear, especially as their relationship becomes even more intimate after this feminist speech. Though this theoretical lens adds depth to the play, it is somewhat confusing why this part is included. This is a question worth bearing in mind, as it renders the play more serious and complicated than a pure comedy show. Perhaps the setup of the play, with Rachel pretending to be her twin-brother, has some deeper meaning with respect to the role of women.
One last feature of One Man, Two Guvnors worth noting is the central role of improvisation and the use of slight line variation in each performance. There is also a high level of interaction with the audience, manifested not only in the actors’ running to and from the aisles in the auditorium, but also the calling up of spectators onto the stage in a manner clearly not negotiated with the audience members beforehand. The sense of humor that we have come to expect from the performance continues in the actors’ interaction with the volunteer. At the same time, though, this allows points of awkwardness, as when the volunteer sits on stage for five minutes and fails to say anything when Francis asks a question. In the iteration of the play that I witnessed, audience participation made the scene less entertaining than it could’ve been, though this potential for failure could also be read as a marker of authenticity and originality in the play.