There is nothing, I have said publicly and privately for years, that could ever make me enjoy live theater’s odious and ever-growing ritual of audience participation. Calling hapless audience members up out of the audience and humiliating them has always struck me as a particularly low form of humor, gratuitous and frankly dreary, since the poor slobs hauled up on stage invariably have, like your humble theater critic, no talent for acting.
It appears I was mistaken about ever liking this unfortunate tradition. I had not counted on the one-two punch of Ron May starring in Richard Bean’s smart tribute to commedia dell’arte, One Man, Two Guvnors. This update of Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters slots in an inordinate amount of chumming with the audience which — thanks to Pasha Yamotahari’s slick direction and May’s princely performance — I found I didn’t deplore.
As the Harlequin, Truffaldino, now a mightily confused and insatiably famished Francis Henshall, May reveals a keen talent for improvisation in this production, as he’s called upon to tart up the also-ran responses shouted from the darkened house. He further wows us as ringmaster to a dazzling supporting cast that includes stalwarts David Barker, Lucas Coatney, Joseph Kremer, David Vining, Michael Kary, and Jenny Hintze as the ingenue and her dead brother.
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Bean has moved Goldoni’s story from 18th-century Venice to 1963 Brighton, where Alan Ruch and Alli Villines play scenic changes set to British music hall tunes. Our hero’s employer has just been murdered, but the man’s twin sister turns up, dressed as the dead man, to collect payment from her late brother’s fiancée’s father in return for an arranged marriage to his daughter. (Confused yet? It’s commedia dell’arte; there’s more.) But the daughter is now engaged to an actor, and is unhappy to see her intended, who’s gay, come back to life. More fun gallops in when the twin sister’s beau, who in fact killed her brother, arrives. Both he and his girlfriend, who’s in drag impersonating the man he killed, hire Francis to collect funds, deliver letters, and iron shirts. Insanity and fourth-wall-breaking ensue, handled by May with breakneck humor and a cartful of double and triple takes.
Add to this mish-mosh the challenge of calling upon the audience for comic counsel throughout, and you have — in lesser hands — a potentially leaden two-plus hours. Those lesser hands must have been needed at other local playhouses, because Phoenix Theater has instead provided fine comic turns from a crowd of professionals who offer wink-and-nudge versions of their commedia prototypes. Robert Kolby Harper is sublime as a dodgy mobster; Vining milks laughs as an effete barrister; Barker plays a pile of pratfalls that steal away the long set-piece that winds up Act One. And somehow, neither comic master Walter Belcher nor any of these others manage to walk off with the whole shebang — perhaps because we’re so well distracted by May’s frenetic performance as the muddled manservant who can sell anything — even audience participation.
One Man, Two Guvnors continues through Sunday, June 8, at 100 E. McDowell Road. Call 602-254-2151 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.com.