Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Math of Precision Comedy

by Kimberly Colburn

Brad Culver, Sarah Moser, John-David Keller and Dan Donohue in One Man, Two Guvnors. Photo courtesy of mellowpix.

On adapting The Servant of Two Masters

“The main problem to solve is that the plot revolves around arranged marriage and that doesn’t exist in contemporary society…The solution we came up with was a marriage of convenience because one of the parties was gay and wanted to hide that fact by marrying a woman. That was my first big breakthrough. The second problem was the sword fighting that features in the original. I remembered Baz Luhrmann’s film, Romeo + Juliet, where he got around his updating of Shakespeare’s play by branding the automatic guns the characters used as being made by a manufacturer called ‘Sword’ so he didn’t have to change the text’s references to swords. This made me think that in the 1960s East End gangsters would have carried around flick knives and that introduced the gangster concept to the adaptation.”
—Richard Bean

Richard Bean

Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

This familiar adage tersely encapsulates the challenge of comedy, a genre that is easily judged by the amount of laughter in the recipients. From the Greeks to modern day, artists have spent countless hours honing their craft, discovering the “rules” of comedy, and developing strategies to capture the chuckles of audiences. “Comedy,” explains Al Jean, “is very mathematical…with its precision and control.” As a longtime writer on “The Simpsons” and a Harvard graduate in mathematics, he would know. Good comedy should have a complicated set-up and then an unexpected reveal, and Jean says “coming up with a good joke is often like doing a proof.” South Coast Repertory’s opening production of the season, One Man Two Guvnors, rises to the challenge.

Helen Sadler, Brad Culver and Robert Sicular in One Man, Two Guvnors.  Photo courtesy of mellowpix.
One Man, Two Guvnors follows a classic farcical formula—in fact, it’s an adaptation of a commedia dell’arte piece, The Servant of Two Masters, by Carlo Goldoni. Commedia was an Italian Renaissance form of semi-improvised theatre that used basic scenarios, stock characters and jokes and frequently included musicians, jugglers and acrobatics. One Man, Two Guvnors adaptor Richard Bean has updated the classic to 1964 Brighton, England, where the swinging ’60s serves as the perfect backdrop for a world of comic mayhem.

Bean’s adaptation places the archetypal characters of commedia dell’arte in their new setting of the UK in the 60's. It’s got the desired complicated set-up: the story centers on an overworked and scheming servant, Francis, who hatches a plan to serve two masters to get double the payment and double the lunch. He’s working for gangster Stanley when the mysterious Roscoe (who is actually his own twin sister, Rachel, in disguise) offers to hire him. Rachel’s secretly having an affair with Stanley, but meanwhile he’s engaged to Pauline. Pauline’s got a plan to elope with wannabe actor Alan. As befits a farce, the relationships and misunderstandings crescendo to an impossibly frenetic climax, with many unexpected revelations along the way.

Dan Donohue and William Connell in ​One Man, Two Guvnors. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com
In order to honor the buoyant spirit of One Man, Two Guvnors, director David Ivers embraces the mathematics of comedy. Ivers is in his fifth season as artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, so he’s well versed in helming large scale comedies. He recently directed The Cocoanuts, a Marx Brothers comedy, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Also a talented actor, he’s finishing a run as Salieri in Amadeus at Utah Shakes—a “small” project in-between the two runs of this One Man, a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre that played in the Bay Area earlier this summer. Ivers explains that “the number of builds/attempts have to be odd, the beats have to be perfectly shorter or longer than the timing of real life, and the rate of acceleration or deceleration has to be perfect. The length of pauses, of suspension, of delivery…there are often many comic options, but for each option, the pattern is rigid. It’s almost like revealing the flawless beauty of a gemstone—the math of the cut has to be perfect.”

Ivers doesn’t shy away from the mathematical demands of this farce, and describes the show as being “built like a machine.” He integrates a band—a skiffle band, a blues/folk/rock blend—with the actors, their movements and the technical elements with careful meticulousness. Ivers says “the world of farce and physical comedy really speaks to me because it marries precision with being a child, with childishnessinnocence and purity and total youthful exuberance with a kind of virtuosity.” The audience can appreciate the youthful exuberance of One Man, Two Guvnors, while the mathematical formulas and careful orchestration remain part of the work behind the scenes.

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