Let’s face it – it’s not always easy to look on the bright side of life. Laughter helps, but getting there often requires a helpful boost. If you are looking for something to give your laughing-and-smiling impulses a comedic kick in the pants, you are currently in luck. Right now, there are two shows running in the Bay Area, each one designed to make you feel a bit lighter and a touch happier – a stunt made possible by daredevil actors committed body-and-soul to the fine art of stage comedy, confident in the uplifting power generated through the sheer ridiculous joy of watching a skilled comedian tumbling down a flight of stairs.
In downtown Sonoma, on the Rotary stage at the Sonoma Community Center, Narrow Way Stage Company has pulled out all the stops with Michael Frayn’s high-energy farce “Noises Off” Running weekends through May 31. Though a bit loose and lumpy here and there, the Narrow Way actors bring a strong, pulse-quickening dose of their patented theater-punk sensibility to this rollicking play-within-a-play, the meta-level story of dysfunctional actors rehearsing and performing a wild sex farce called ‘Nothing On.’ Tony Ginesi’s rotating two-story set let’s us see both sides of the action, front-of-stage and back-of-stage, as the hapless actors present the same ridiculous story three times over the course of its months long run, which – true to the longstanding rules of comedy – goes anything but smoothly.
Directed by Nick Christenson, with a bring-it-on, anything-goes sense of heightened performance and comedic timing, this high-energy roller-coaster of a show benefits from a cast willing to do just about anything, from romping about in underwear to falling down stairs – I told you – to slipping on a plate of sardines or sitting on a cactus.
Meanwhile, just beyond the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Berkeley Repertory Theater is presenting the West Coast premiere of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” Richard Bean’s joyously madcap assault on the average funny-bone, running through June 21. A bawdy British adaptation of the classic Italian farce A Servant of Two Masters, “One Man, Two Guvnors” is set in Brighton, circa 1963, where a poor, hungry musician, desperate for a sandwich or a plate of eggs, finds himself working for two different criminals, one rich, one on the lam. With original tunes played by a “skiffle” band along the lines of John Lennon’s pre-Beatles band The Quarrymen, this show caused a sensation in London and New York, making a star of James Corden (The Late Late Show), whose shoes are capably filled in Berkeley by actor Dan Donohue, acclaimed for his work with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The show is brilliantly performed by every single member of the ensemble, playing an assortment of oddballs from the cross-dressing woman pretending to be her dead brother, to the jittery servant who keeps falling down stairs – there it is again. Even the poor guy with only three lines as a waiter makes comic gold of his brief moment in the spotlight. Directed by David Ivers with a sense of controlled mania, the show incorporates ingenious audience participation and musical interludes that both set the tone and add a specific flavor of riotous party-time mayhem to the proceedings.
Easily one of the best new-but-based-on-something-old comedies of the year, “One Man, Two Guvnors” is a happy smile of a show that, like Noises Off, brings its characters right to edge of tragedy before winging wackily back to the land of happy endings.
It’s hard not to feel happy after something like that.
“Noises Off” runs through May 31st at the Sonoma Community Center (sonomaartslive.org) and “One Man, Two Guvnors” runs through June 21st at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BerkeleyRep.org)
I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.