A woman pursued by Francis Henshall says, “I know exactly what he’s after. And if he carries on like this, he’s going to get it.” In Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Matthew Lewis Johnson plays Henshall in precisely that manner, behaving manically and getting exactly what this play aims for — unbridled, bawdy humor. The show is British playwright Richard Bean’s modernization of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 Italian farce, A Servant of Two Masters, relocating the story to Brighton, England in the swinging summer of 1963.
A fellow hungry for food and female companionship, Henshall greedily signs on with two employers and then can’t keep things straight. He’s constantly headed down the wrong path trying to navigate between a devious gangster, Rachel Crabbe (posing as Roscoe, her dead “identical” twin brother), played with laughable toughness by Caitlin McWethy, and the silly toff Stanley Stubbers, who happens to be Rachel’s lover and the murderer of Roscoe, embodied by the comically elastic Justin McCombs.
Actors repeatedly address the audience with a lot of knowing remarks, as well as interactions and moments that are clearly improvised. Johnson recruits several theatergoers onstage to join in the chaotic mayhem he constantly manufactures. A former full-time member of Cincy Shakes’ acting company, Johnson is a fearless physical and verbal comedian, and he milks Bean’s comic script (with echoes of Monty Python-inspired wordplay) for all it’s worth. His most hilarious moment happens when he argues furiously with himself about the pickle he’s gotten himself into — and loses, knocking himself silly with the lid of a trashcan.
If this sounds a tad Shakespearean — asides, mistaken identities, pratfalls, larger-than-life fools, inept clowns, befuddled parents, secret love affairs and romantic resolutions of all confusion — well, that’s why One Man, Two Guvnors is a perfect comedy of midsummer tomfoolery for Cincy Shakes.
Pepper this mix with a lot of running gags and a cast that knows how to land jokes, and you have a show that’s a surefire laugh machine. Cary Davenport plays an amateur actor inclined to over-emoting; company veteran Nick Rose injects an obnoxious note as Davenport’s character’s braying prospective father-in-law. Davenport doubles as the lead singer of “The Shakes,” a skiffle band performing original Pop tunes (by Grant Olding) to entertain before the show and provide some thematic reinforcement while scenes are changed. Another company veteran, Jeremy Dubin, jumps in and out of the band while portraying a host of comic characters, most notably an unstable, slow-moving 87-year-old waiter whose new pacemaker keeps getting cranked up.
Audiences of One Man, Two Guvnors are more or less guaranteed an evening of nonstop laughter with this highly entertaining production. Theater doesn’t get much funnier than this. This is the show’s regional premiere (it was a London hit in 2011 and made its way to Broadway and Tony Awards in 2012); it’s doing so well that Cincy Shakes has added afternoon performances on June 20 and 27.
• Meanwhile, at the new Incline Theater in East Price Hill, in another Tony Award-winner, theater mogul Max Bialystock (Mike Sherman) is almost as shameless as Henshall in his pursuit of a little bit of this and that as he wangles his way into the hearts of wealthy old ladies he’s wooing in order to scrape together funding for a surefire Broadway flop. That’s the premise of The Producers, an aptly chosen opener for the new facility. Cincinnati Landmark’s own cagey producers, artistic director Tim Perrino and project manager Rodger Pille, had the right intuition in grabbing this show to inaugurate its new 229-seat facility.
Partnered with anxious accountant Leo Bloom (Spencer Smith), Bialystock puts in motion a scheme so ridiculous it works: The impossibly bad show they assemble — in hopes of a fast closing and the opportunity to take the money and run — turns into a hit. And a hit is what The Producers is thanks to a production that balances delirium with verve. The show is full of tongue-in-cheek showbiz humor from the fevered brain of Mel Brooks — ridiculous jokes, all manner of caricatures, lovingly rendered gay theater types and singing, dancing Nazis. (Trust me, it works.)
Sherman captures the scheming, schmoozing, crass manipulator, and Smith is a nervous nebbish who yearns to be a player. The show has a big, busy cast that’s great fun to watch as it spins through numerous crazy roles and numbers. The Producers and the Incline have proven to be such a success that most performances have been sold out. (Look for a full-length review of this production here.)
ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS will be onstage at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company through July 5. THE PRODUCERS, presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, continues through June 21.