Friday, May 22, 2015

Singular Sensations

On January 29, 1966, when Sweet Charity opened on Broadway at the Palace Theatre, the song which became one of the show's biggest hits was "Big Spender." With music by Cy Coleman. lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and provocative choreography by Bob Fosse, the number featured a lineup of bored, jaded, and cynical taxi dancers offering their bodies to prospective customers.

Often overlooked in the aggressiveness of their come-ons are these three lines:
"Do you wanna have fun?
How's about a few laughs?
I could show you a good time!"
Giving one's audience a good time has become a rare skill. Major stars like Kristin Chenowith, Hugh Jackman, Bette Midler, and Lady Gaga know how to deliver the goods. Powerhouse roles like Pseudolus (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!), Auntie Mame (Mame), and Professor Harold Hill (The Music Man) are almost foolproof vehicles for gifted actors.

Nevertheless, a show's creative team can only go so far in providing the foundation upon which a performer can build an unforgettable evening. Recently, while watching an outrageous entry in San Francisco's 14th annual DocFest and a brilliant new adaptation of a 272-year-old commedia dell'arte masterpiece, I was reminded of the wise words of Mel Brooks: "When you've got it, flaunt it!"

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When one starts looking around for "colorful characters," people with a tremendous lust for life (like Zorba the Greek) or a winning philosophy (like Auntie Mame, who insisted that "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!") quickly come to mind. Most fans of the popular Seinfeld series have fond memories of "The Soup Nazi" episode. But did you know there is an eccentric "Sandwich Nazi" in Vancouver?

Filmmaker Lewis Bennett's documentary about Salam Kahil (who proudly describes himself as “an Arab Muslim Lebanese with a Scandinavian deli with a French name in Canada" easily fits the bill for a portrait of a character who is "larger than life."

When Salam is not proudly describing the exploits of his 9-1/2 inch penis, playing the cello, or reminiscing about the best blowjobs of his life, he takes turns insulting his loyal, adoring customers and handing out free sandwiches to Vancouver's homeless. He never hesitates to brag about the fact that the way he got into Canada was by fucking one of its male immigration officials in the ass.

To say that Kahil has lived a remarkable life would be an understatement. As a child, he was sexually abused by his older brother. After getting kicked out of numerous schools in Beirut, he ran away from home at 14 and worked as a male escort throughout Europe. Over the years he realized that his foul mouth made it wiser for him to work alone rather than face an endless string of sexual harassment lawsuits from employees.

Salam Kahil slicing meat in his delicatessen in Vancouver

Bennett's documentary, The Sandwich Nazi, had its world premiere at 2015's South by Southwest Festival (where Salam happily dropped his pants and went full frontal before the audience during the post-screening Q&A session). The film focuses on a man who, in addition to constantly joking about his sexual prowess, remains refreshingly blunt (Kahil takes great joy in pointing out the cum stains he has left on the concrete floor in the back room of his sandwich shop).

An enthusiastic exhibitionist, Kahil is seen dealing with the problems of failing health, alienation from his family in Beirut (including a mother with Alzheimer's disease), and a keen awareness that, despite his hefty endowment, after turning 30 he was too old to continue working as an escort.

While some might find Bennett's documentary crude, and Kahil's extreme extroversion too abrasive, the man deserves credit for making no apologies about who he is and what he has to offer the world. Whether seeming unusually vulnerable during a hospitalization (following an automobile accident) or wondering whether ill health will force him to close his deli, Salam is the kind of man who has absolutely no filters. What you see is what you get -- and what you hear is bound to include a healthy dose of (often hilarious) insults.

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For many theatre historians, Carlo Goldoni's 1743 farce entitled The Servant of Two Masters is a classic of the commedia dell'arte style of comedy. In 2011, the Royal National Theatre in London presented a stunning new adaptation written by Richard Bean, directed by Nicholas Hytner, and starring James Corden that became such a hit that it transferred to the West End and, in April 2012, to Broadway (where Corden won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play).

Bean's adaptation moved the action up to the 1960s and relocated it from Venice to Brighton. In the following clip, Bean, Hytner, and Corden discuss the inspiration for the production and some of the lessons they learned after One Man, Two Guvnors went live before an audience.

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of One Man, Two Guvnors in a rollicking production directed by David Ivers with songs by Grant Olding. When the audience enters the Roda Theatre it is greeted by a skiffle band consisting of Casey Hurt (guitar, vocals and band leader), Andrew Niven (drummer), Marcus Högsta (bassist), and Mike McGraw (guitarist). The band performs during set changes and, in Act II, reappears dressed as an early rock band in outfits one might expect to see on a group like The Beatles.

When the star of a show's original production has received so much acclaim for a breakthrough performance, anyone who steps into the role in subsequent productions has big shoes to fill (think of Zero Mostel as Tevye or Ethel Merman as Mama Rose). However, the magic of live theatre is such a powerful force that, often, someone with a completely different body type than the original star can craftily make the show his own and have audiences eating out of his hand.

Francis Henshall (Dan Donohue) and Charlie Clench (Robert Sicular)
in a scene from One Man, Two Guvnors (Photo by:

That's the kind of theatrical triumph Dan Donohue achieved in the role of Francis Henshall.  A lanky redhead who is a skilled physical clown with a great sense of timing, Donohue is adept at improvising with the audience and at milking a laugh for all it's worth. Under Ivers's direction, Donohue doesn't try to rush through Bean's script or beat the jokes into the ground. Instead, he gives key moments the grace of a few extra beats so that the audience is laughing with him (as well as at him).

As Francis Henshall, Dan Donohue struggles to move a trunk across 
the stage in One Man, Two Guvnors (Photo by: 

The same can be said of the superb supporting cast. With veteran clown Ron Campbell as Alfie (an old, easily befuddled, and nearly deaf waiter who keeps falling down the stairs on his first day at a new job) and Danny Scheie as Gareth (a head waiter with a mischievous smirk and priceless delivery), Donohue has strong comedic shoulders to lean on.

Ron Campbell, Dan Donohue, and Danny Scheie keep the audience
in stitches in One Man, Two Guvnors (Photo by:

Add in the preening Brad Culver as Alan (a vain and overly dramatic aspiring actor) who is in love with the empty-headed Pauline (Sarah Moser), and Claire Warden as Dolly (a sex-starved bookkeeper) and complications quickly ensue. Top that all off with William Connell's hilarious performance as Stanley Stubber (a studly upper class fool who is head over heels in love with a young woman named Rachel (Helen Sadler).

Pauline (Sarah Moser) listens to Rachel (Helen Sadler) as her narcissistic
fiancé, Alan (Brad Culver), looks on in One Man, Two Guvnors
(Photo by: 

Here's where things get complicated.
  • Stanley is fleeing the police after having murdered Roscoe Crabbe (Rachel's twin brother). 
  • Rachel has disguised herself as a man in order to find her late brother's assassin.
  • Alan is threatening to kill someone with a butter knife he bought at Woolworth's.
  • Alan's father, Harry Dangle (John-David Keller), can't understand the difference between an identical twin and a fraternal twin
  • And, blessed with the sheer luck of being in the wrong place at the right time, Francis Henshall (who is so hungry he could kill...) finds himself employed as the servant to both Stanley and Rachel. Not only that, he must frequently dash offstage and reappear as his imaginary friend, Patty.
Francis Henshall (Dan Donohue) is asked to run an unpleasant errand
by Stanley Stubber (William Connell) in One Man, Two Guvnors
(Photo by: 

With sets by Hugh Landwehr and costumes designed by Meg Neville, Berkeley Rep's production is filled with laughter and sight gags (Dan Donohue's bravura efforts to serve dinner to his two bosses in a Brighton hotel includes some hilarious tricks played with meatballs, cucumbers, and dead fish). Gerry McIntyre scores strong points as Lloyd Boateng (an ex con who is a devoted friend of Rachel's) while Becca Lustgarten steals the show in ways too brilliant and numerous to count.

Dolly (Claire Warden) and Francis (Dan Donohue) share a clumsy
moment in One Man, Two Guvnors (Photo by: 

Performances of One Man, Two Guvnors continue at Berkeley Rep through June 21 (click here to order tickets). In the meantime, enjoy the trailer:

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