You may think that you’re just watching the hit new British slapstick farce “One Man, Two Guvnors” during its regional premiere at the Forum Theatre starting Thursday.
But you’ll actually be delving back into the rich traditions of 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte, said Kathy Page Hauptman, play director and the Forum’s producing artistic director.
The new play by Richard Bean, which was nominated for seven 2012 Tony Awards, is a clever adaptation of Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 “Servant of Two Masters,” and it turns 1740s Florence into 1960s seaside Brighton.
But, Hauptman said, Bean puts a new spin on all the traditional plot lines like love, adultery, jealousy, old age and misunderstandings, and retools stock comic characters, from Truffaldino (tricky servant) to Pantalone (rich old miser) to the various Innamorati (lovers) into a slapstick gangster tale.
“I love that while it seems like slapstick, it’s also pretty literary with rich comic traditions,” said Hauptman, who loved the show on Broadway and got permission for the Forum to be one of the first theaters in the country to mount its own production.
“It’s a nice mix of physical comedy, political comedy and British music hall with songs (from composer Gary Oldman) and variety numbers between scenes. It’s not a musical, but a play with music and an on-stage band,” she said. “That music is very much in keeping with the commedia dell’arte traditions.”
In this show, the focal point is Francis, a happy-go-lucky bloke who finds himself accidentally working for rival gangsters at the same time, and he has to scheme, sweat and run around like crazy to keep them apart to prevent any mayhem.
“Francis is sort of a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants guy who is always hungry and always in desperate need of a job. He doesn’t really think about the future. He’s always in the moment,” said Stephen Hitchcock, who plays the role. “He’s been a busker (street musician), but he gets hired as muscle to help one gangster collect a debt. While he’s doing that, he runs into the other ‘guvnor’ and ends up as his hired muscle, too. Then he realizes what he’s done.”
Hitchcock said he likes that Francis is not a calculating person but always serendipitously manages to find a way out of tight corners.
“He’s full of energy and I enjoy the pratfalls and running around,” said Hitchcock, a longtime regular at Mosley Street Melodrama but also known for major roles in the Forum’s “Cabaret,” “The Full Monty” and “Hello, Dolly!” last season. “His other passion besides eating is a girl named Dolly. He’s sort of childish, motivated by food and sex.”
The first guvnor who hires Francis is Roscoe, an underworld figure who is actually dead and being impersonated by his sister, Rachel, played by Molly Tully. She was seen last season in the Forum’s “The Full Monty,” Wichita Community Theatre’s “Doubt” and Wichita Scottish Rite Signature Theatre’s musical “1776” as Martha Washington.
“Rachel is a good girl, even though she grew up in a family of criminals. She spends most of the show dressed in men’s clothes as her dead brother because she’s an over-the-top romantic who will do anything for the man she loves,” she said.
That man, it turns out, is responsible for her brother’s death.
“Yes, I know that sounds completely odd that she still wants to marry her boyfriend after he kills her brother, but that’s what makes the show so crazy and fun,” Tully said. “I absolutely love her because she throws herself into things passionately. She takes risks. She doesn’t hold back. I can identify with her because I’m passionate and over-the-top when I want something.”
The hapless Francis’ other guvnor is Stanley, a cocky wheeler-dealer from a wealthy family who feels entitled. He’s also Rachel’s boyfriend, who killed her brother. And he’s a bit of an arrogant social twit.
“Stanley is prep-school educated. He’s smart enough to pick things up quickly. But he’s kind of a lummox,” said the actor playing him, Brian Welsby, last seen in Theatre on Consignment’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as alcoholic George and Wichita Community Theatre’s “Doubt” as a priest accused of child molestation.
“He’s not really a bad guy although he finds himself in shady circumstances. His family has money and he likes to spend it. He loves good wine, good food and good service. The fun thing about him is the physical comedy, the quick pace and all the door slamming,” Welsby said.
“Despite his flaws, I think I’d probably like him as a friend because he ultimately shows some wisdom in dealing with other characters.”
Playing Charlie “The Duck” Clench, an old-school mobster who’s seen and done everything and has had his hand in every pie, is Mark Mannette, who is starting his third year as director of theater at Newman University. Mannette is a member of Actors Equity whose resume ranges from “Hamlet” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “The Odd Couple” with theaters in Minneapolis and Orlando as well as Virginia’s American Shakespeare Center. This is his Wichita acting debut.
“Charlie is a scrap metal dealer ostensibly, but behind the scenes, he’s a prosperous cockney gangster. People fear him to some degree, but he’s a comic gangster. He’s the Pantalone figure, the old guy who can be taken,” Mannette said. “He’s a single father who is fond of his adult daughter, so he’s redeemable. He’s fun to play because he’s not always that bright.”
Others in the cast are Sarah Gale McQuery as Dolly, the old mobster’s know-it-all secretary; Paul Jackson as Harry, his Latin-speaking lawyer; Huron Breaux as Lloyd, his Jamaican hitman; Tom Frye as bumbling waiter Alfie; and Courtney Linville and Ted Dvorak as clueless young lovers, Pauline and Alan. Clint McCorkle and Aaron Profit will take a variety of secondary roles.
In a new move for the Forum, the show’s first Thursday will be a half-price preview with all tickets priced at $11.50. There will also be a pre-show discussion every night at 7:30 p.m. with director Hauptman and a post-show discussion with director and cast after the first two Sunday matinees.
In a related special event, longtime local actress and educator Gina Austin will present the history of commedia dell’arte. She will talk about how it relates to “One Man, Two Guvnors,” including a historical time line of comic characters, plots and themes from 16th-century Italy to silent film’s Charlie Chaplin to today’s “The Simpsons” sitcom. The event is free and will be at noon Wednesday at Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas.