Ok theater-goers, here’s a question: What type of theater do you think is the toughest for actors and directors to get right? Ask anyone and I’m betting, dollars to doughnuts, they’ll name the weighty, thought-provoking, tear-jerking dramas.
“The Miracle Worker, Death of a Salesman, or any of the Shakespearean tragedies will likely be at the top of the list. And why not? The epic scenes we all know from these productions come with a lot of expectation, and productions are forced to either get them right or risk a vengeful wrath from critics and audiences alike.
But I think there’s something tougher. Imagine packing a house full of people, all different ages, from different backgrounds and with different personal experiences. Then try to make them all laugh at the same moment.
Audiences are programmed to respond to loss, tragedy, betrayal and all the rest. But our sense of humor is as varied as our taste in music. So what’s a poor director to do?
For Matthew R. Wilson, director of 1st Stage’s One Man, Two Guvnors, bringing the funny wasn’t easy.
“The ‘set ‘em up and knock ‘em down’, that’s painstaking work,” he says. For Wilson and the cast, teasing the humor out of the play is as much scientific trial and error as it is art.
One Man, Two Guvnors is all about misdirection, obfuscation and utter chaos. Set in 1960’s Brighton, England, the play tells the story of a bodyman serving two masters, a cross-dressing woman posing as her gangster brother, arranged marriages-gone-wrong and a whole lot more. And while it’s dark at times the play is still a comedy, something director Matt Wilson worked hard to get right.
“The nice thing about comedy is you know when it’s working,” says Wilson. “When it worked, we laughed.” But he adds, “the scary thing is you (also) know when it’s not working.”
To make it work, Wilson describes a process that sounds like as much like composing music as producing a piece of good theater.
“This is like a high-end sports car, where all the pieces have to be clicking in the right way,” Wilson says, using musical terms like “quick-quick-quick, and a pause” or “loud-loud-soft” to describe the comedic beats.
Comedy is nothing new for Wilson. He’s Artistic Director of Faction of Fools, a DC theater company dedicated to commedia dell’arte. Commedia, of course, is known for masked characters and big, wry humor.
And while One Man, Two Guvnors isn’t a commedia production, it is a modern adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 commedia-style Servant of Two Masters. Wilson notes that while his production isn’t commedia, strictly speaking, much of the humor in the play comes from those roots.
“The heart of the characters and the character relationships all come from the dramaturgical architecture,” he says. “We talked a lot about how the characters relate to each other based on their place in the world.” Wilson also points to the “insider/outsider” mentality of commedia’s archetypical characters as driving the relationships in the show, calling it “a set up for the comedy.”
For example, Wilson says, “you have to believe that Roscoe Crabbe was a dangerous, bad man, in order for it to be funny for his sister (Katy Carkuff, as Rachel) to dress up like him. If Francis (Doug Wilder) is not a guy who desperately needs work, then we can’t really root for him while he’s in over his head.”
While the show is funny and light in its own way, Wilson highlights a “nasty realism” that provides a dark foil for the humor. “We don’t want a colorful, whimsical, wacky world,” he says.
Wilson has a lot of help, particularly from what he describes as an extraordinary cast. Doug Wilder, who plays n’er-do-well Francis in the production, seems to agree with Wilson that the show is difficult, but for him it’s as much a physical endeavor as a mental one.
“It’s a tough show to do,” Wilder says enthusiastically. “That’s an understatement. It is tremendously taxing physically.” Wilder adds that he underwent a training regime to ensure his legs and body were up for the challenge.
“It’s two hours of dive over here, roll over here,” he says, noting that’s he’s pretty wiped out when the production finishes at the end of the night.
But it wasn’t all squats and jogging for Wilder. Like Wilson, he points to a trial and error process and intense work to prepare for the improvisational elements of One Man, Two Guvnors.
“You come up with 800 jokes in the rehearsal process,” Wilder says. “You kind of keep throwing jokes out there and get a feeling for what the moment is.”
For all the focus on humor, however, Director Wilson points to strong efforts towards set design and musicality as making the show a success. The show boasts a skiffle band (complete with washboard) under the direction of Toby Mulford that Wilson calls “really amazing,” noting that “they even had audience members try to book them for other events. So well done, them.”
ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS
Closes December 28, 2014
1524 Spring Hill Road
(free parking or short walk from the new Spring Hill Metro stop)
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission (includes the band preshow)
Fridays thru Sundays
Wilson says Madsen was inspired by “old paper theaters,” a vision he notes wasn’t easy to bring to 1st Stage.
“The play relies on a proscenium and a drop curtain, so you can watch the band,” Wilson says. “1st stage doesn’t have a fly system or a built in curtain, so all of that had to be designed and built.”
It’s clear that a lot of work and thought went into One Man, Two Guvnors. But if you’re still not convinced that it’s tough to pull off, there’s likely still something here for you.
When asked if he has any final thoughts on the show, Doug Wilder doesn’t miss a beat.
“Yea,” he says. “It’s funny.”