Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters gets an irresistibly fun update in Georgia Shakespeare’s latest production, One Man, Two Guvnors, running through July 27. The action is moved from its original setting of 18th-century Venice to 1960s Brighton, from the land of canals, masked balls and dowry weddings to a land of tacky piers, small-time gangsters and cockney slang.
The play, adapted by British playwright Richard Bean, was a smash hit at London’s National Theatre in the West End in 2011, with a successful Broadway run in 2012. The production at Georgia Shakespeare represents the first time the show has been performed in Atlanta and one of the first productions in the American regional theater. Judging by the audience reaction, it’s fair to guess that it’s the first of many.
Goldoni originally wrote Servant for the popular commedia dell’arte actor Antonio Sacco: it’s essentially a vehicle for a talented comic. The script, despite its brilliance, is ostensibly a mere structure for containing an actor’s skillful live improvisations. The same is true of One Man, Two Guvnors as well, and thanks to the prodigious comic and improvisatory gifts of actor Aaron Muñoz the production succeeds. He has an expressive sort of angsty but philosophically nihilistic attitude when things inevitably start to go wrong. The world can go to hell in a hand basket, but as long as he gets a decent meal, it’s all good.
Muñoz is supported by a fine and funny cast. I especially liked Courtney Patterson as plain-spoken, sexy bird Dolly; Chris Kayser as a beleaguered, short-tempered maitre d’ and, as listed in the program, one “Armitage Shanks” (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Richard Garner, Georgia Shake’s artistic director) as a pathetically feeble waiter.
The addition of live music — fun guitar pop and early 1960s style harmonies — by the three-piece band The Head throughout the show is a great move. If dance crazes ever become a thing again, they’re poised to provide the perfect music for it. I’m not usually a fan of audience participation, but members of the cast occasionally bring audience members onstage for a bit of interactive fun (I didn’t get picked, so I was free to laugh), and it’s especially inventive the way that the cast slowly pulls the participating audience members not just up on stage but into the world of the play.
The playwright Bean updates his play for a contemporary British audience: there are jokes pondering the possibility of a woman prime minister and a laugh or two at the expense of the provincial hinterland Australia. These get a laugh on this side of the pond, too, but it might have been interesting if American producers had moved the play in place and time as well: why not Atlantic City in the 1970s? Or Miami in the 1980s?
The plot is outrageously complicated and convoluted with misunderstandings, double-crossings and mistaken identities, but in what I assume is a commedia dell’arte tradition, the characters often turn to the audience to comment or explain what’s going on. It’s a useful punctuation that makes the action easier to follow.
Have a glass of wine at dinner with no worries about the pacing. If a character comes across a situation in which he must be very careful, he’ll turn to the audience and say, “I must be very careful,” just to be sure. At intermission, have one more.