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Keep 'em Laughing, and Laughing and Laughing: One Man, Two Guvnors at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

06/10/2015 05:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

I watched the Tony Awards on TV for the same reason I always do: the performances. Every year seems to bring fewer awards and more entertainment -- yes, sometimes bombastic snippets from overblown musicals but sometimes real gems. I still haven't seen anything to top James Corden's amazing one-man two-person fight from One Man, Two Guvnors, for which he won a Tony three years ago. Francis Henshall is a character who will go down in theater history, I predict, as memorable a creation as Hamlet or Willy Loman, except, you know, funny. Really, really funny.

It was hard to think anyone could match Corden -- who now, speaking of TV, hosts The Late, Late Show -- as Henshall. And yet, Dan Donohue, aided by a splendid cast, is doing just that in the production of One Man, Two Guvnors (jointly produced with Orange County's South Coast Repertory) at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Berkeley Rep has won its own Tony -- the regional theater award, in 1997 -- and its longtime artistic director, Tony Taccone, is a big reason Sarah Jones' terrific solo show Bridge & Tunnel, which she workshopped with Taccone at Berkeley Rep in 2005, won a special Tony Award the following year. But a great artistic director lets us see the work of other directors, too. So next season, he'll present one of this year's Tony best-play nominees, the provocative Disgraced, as directed by Kimberly Senior, who took the play from Chicago to London to Broadway. We'll get another of Tony-winning director Mary Zimmerman's fanciful, visually thrilling adaptations of classic tales, Treasure Island.

The season will open in August with the world premiere of Amélie, a musical directed by Pam MacKinnon, who won her Tony for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. (If that doesn't illustrate a diverse skill set, I don't know what does.) And yep, we can thank yet another fine director, David Ivers, for the laugh-a-minute production now at Berkeley Rep.

This is a play that calls for beyond-excellent physical skills, outlandish verbal dexterity, even a little musical ability. In his efforts to not only cater to two employers but keep them unaware of one another, Francis Henshall offers one of the hardest-working roles in show business. He's the heart of the show, whether literally serving his two masters -- lunch, in their separate rooms, while taking more and more food for himself -- wooing a woman, trying to budge a heavy trunk or nimbly improvising with audience members. I hope Donohue doesn't get his own talk show, because I really want to see him here again!

And yet the show would be nothing without formidable planets revolving around his blazing sun. Local treasures Ron Campbell and Danny Scheie are hilarious as the waiters, as are Robert Sicular as Charlie Clench and Sarah Moser as Pauline, his dim but lovable daughter, whom two men are fighting over, sort of. One of the men (Helen Sadler) is actually in disguise as her brother, accidentally killed by her rich-twit lover (William Connell). The other is her true love, Alan (Brad Culver).

British playwright Richard Bean's update of The Servant of Two Masters, Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell'arte masterwork, moves the action from 1740s Venice to Brighton Beach in 1963 -- hence, the lively four-man skiffle band that entertains before the play begins and during set changes, occasionally joined by a cast member. If the action didn't proceed at such a headlong pace, you might start to wonder what surprise the next curtain would bring. In sparkles and wigs, Moser, Sadler and Claire Warden (Dolly, Henshall's romantic quest) form a Supremes-like trio. John-David Keller, who plays Alan's lawyer father, sings a rousing, completely out-of-character song. Culver joins the band playing percussion on his chest, and Connell performs on air horns.

Add to this an endless variety of humor -- from lame to clever, slapstick to topical satire, quick quips to audience participation.... If you think you don't like farce, think again. Even when you see it coming, you can't help laughing every time Campbell falls down the stairs, for instance. In fact, you leave the theater weak with laughter, and filled with admiration.

Through June 28, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, 510.647.2949, berkeleyrep.org.