“You gotta free me / ’Cause I can’t give the best / Unless I got room to move.” – Lyrics from “Room to Move” by British musician John Mayall
So this is what a B Street Theatre production can look like, sound like and feel like when the director, cast and crew are freed up and have much more room to move.
Buck Busfield, B Street’s producing artistic director, said he wanted to open his company’s stunning new home, the Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts, with a play “that showed off both the beautiful, new space and our talented acting company.” With the hilarious and hyperkinetic “One Man, Two Guvnors,” Busfield, B Street and their Sofia have made a momentous introduction.
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British playwright Richard Bean’s award-winning play is a brilliant screwball comedy with all the classic elements: pratfalls, slapstick, fast and funny dialogue, mistaken identities, door slamming – and lots of bird poop. In his pre-show remarks, Busfield described the play as “an unapologetic farce. If you’re of above average intelligence, you should leave now.” Nevertheless, the apparently modest audience members stayed put.
Set in the English seaside resort town of Brighton in 1963, on the eve of the “British invasion” of the U.S. by bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and recording artists such as Mayall, “One Man” follows the struggles and stresses of Francis Henshall, an out-of-work musician who finds himself working as a valet to two gangsters. When he isn’t scrounging for food, Henshall spends much of his time lying to, hiding from and bamboozling each of his employers. He knows that if either finds out he’s working for the other, he could lose more than his livelihood – he could lose his life.
Busfield, who also directs the play, has assembled arguably the largest and most talent-rich cast ever for a B Street production. “One Man” utilizes 14 actors, with many of them onstage at the same time. The old B Street stage simply could not have managed that. (The Sofia’s mainstage theater is still an intimate space that seats 250, compared with the 182 seats at the B Street location.)
The play’s credits read like the roster for an all-star acting team, boasting some of the most accomplished talent in the B Street stable, including Elisabeth Nunziato, Kurt Johnson, Dave Pierini, Greg Alexander and Jason Kuykendall. This cohesive ensemble keeps up with the madcap pace of Bean’s script, all while delivering believable British accents. In addition, Jahi Kearse delivers a spot-on Jamaican accent as Lloyd Boateng, a man of multiple talents and interests – most of them developed in prison.
At the center of this warped universe is Henshall, whose scheming and conniving ways are made endearing by actor Peter Story. Henshall is always hustling, trying to stay one step ahead of his two bosses: the tough-talking Roscoe Crabbe (who – minor plot spoiler – is actually Roscoe’s twin sister, Rachel, in disguise, and played by Stephanie Altholz) and the dimwitted Stanley Stubbers (played by Kuykendall).
Under Busfield’s deft direction, the energetic cast spits out tongue-twisting lines, runs, jumps, falls, prances and zooms around stage at a frenetic pace, slamming into each other only when the script requires it. Several of them show off their melodic chops too, by playing guitar, xylophone and singing along with a small combo that performs music director Noah Agruss’ upbeat arrangements during set changes and as audience members settle into their seats before each act.
The Sofia’s larger space allows for set designer Samantha Reno get to more massive with her sumptuous creations. Ron Dumonchelle’s dramatic lighting complements the scrims and backdrops that fly down, while colorful floor-to-ceiling curtains, large op art pieces, and realistic facades of a British pub and a row of apartments are rolled on and off the stage with ease.
“One Man” extends beyond the stage too, as the cast frequently breaks the imaginary “fourth wall” that separates it from the audience. Several times, the always desperate, always hungry Henshall reaches out to the audience for help. At one point, he asks if anyone has something to eat. An audience member on a recent evening offered up a hummus sandwich. “No wonder you haven’t eaten it,” he cracked. “Bring that all the way from UC Davis?”
Story’s Henshall also brings audience members up on stage to join in the shenanigans. Whether these newly initiated actors are truly unsuspecting theatergoers, or plants, or some blend of the two, they all appear convincingly uncomfortable on stage.
Two other actors deserve mention for their scene-stealing performances: Tara Sissom as Pauline Clench, a screeching, often hysterical femme fatale; and John Lamb as her boyfriend Alan Dangle, a supremely self-absorbed actor. Playing a star-crossed couple, these two know how to shine.
Mitchel Benson is a theater critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
One Man, Two Guvnors
What: An award-winning British comedy about an unemployed musician who finds work as a valet to two gangsters, and struggles to keep each boss a secret from the other. Presented by B Street Theatre. Written by Richard Bean. Directed by Buck Busfield.
Where: Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts, 2700 Capitol Ave., Sacramento
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through March 11.
Cost: $32-$46, discounts available for students and seniors
Information: 916-443-5300 or www.bstreettheatre.org
Running time: About two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission