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Summer Circle’s opener promises secrets, lies and disguise

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What is one man willing to risk for a meal? That is the question as Francis Henshall, a down-and-out musician living on the streets of Brighton, England, jumps from one shenanigan to the next in his harrowing pursuit for food.

MSU’s Summer Circle Theatre series begins Thursday with “One Man, Two Guvnors,” a fast-paced, slapstick comedy requiring constant audience participation. Hungry and unemployed, Henshall becomes the minder — ‘60s South England slang for bodyguard — for a cutthroat gangster named Roscoe Crabbe. Shortly after landing the job, the con artist reveals to Henshall that “he” is Rachel Crabbe, Roscoe’s twin sister, disguised as her brother, who died a wrongful death. Henshall is hired to help avenge her twin brother’s death and help her and her fiancé, Stanley, escape to Australia. In need of a second hustle, Henshall secretly starts working as Stanley’s bodyguard, and the hilarity of living a double life ensues.

Rob Roznowski, director and head of acting and directing in the Department of Theatre, plans to celebrate the 59th year of the outdoor play series by highlighting the many forms of comedy. Thursday’s play is an English adaptation of “Servant of Two Masters,” a prominent example of commedia dell’arte written by Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni in 1763.

“The show itself is a modern-day version of dell’arte,” Roznowski said. "Very broad characterizations, movement and jokes. A lot of the students are used to working with realism. This is a lot more heightened.”

M.F.A. Student Darah Donaher, 25, said she only had 12 rehearsals to learn a cockney accent and master the subtle mannerisms of Crabbe attempting to impersonate her deceased brother.

“Everyone else has Brighton accents, but she is part of this lower-class, cockney world,” Donaher said referring to her character’s unique characteristics. “But then I’m lowering my voice to play Roscoe. Then I add on the physical aspects of playing Roscoe, but seeming that I’m not very good at playing this part.”

New to Summer Circle, this is Donaher’s first time rehearsing three shows within five weeks, all in different accents. The actress said “it’s a lot to remember” but worth the challenge.

Lead actor and M.F.A student Kevin Craig, 32, understands the full-bodied commitment required to make audiences laugh. Craig has been in several comedic musicals such as “Don’t Talk to the Actors” and “Foreigner” at the Kavinoky Theatre in Buffalo, New York. The latter earned him an Artie Award nomination for “Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play” in 2018.

Craig said the most rewarding aspect of working on “Guvnors” is the “party atmosphere” during rehearsals. The play’s continuous antics drummed up a friendly competition between cast members to see who could get the biggest crackups during the otherwise stressful and fleeting rehearsal timeline.

While the show is not a musical, there are little ditties between each scene in the style of a rockabilly variety show. Anything goes during these brief gags where cast members showcase what the director calls “their really bizarre, special skills.”

While the humor is contrary to sophistication, “One Man, Two Guvnors” involves a messy, tangled thread of relationships. The language used in the play also reflects the common vernacular of Brighton during the ‘60s.

“For example, Stanley says the word ‘rozzers,’ which is British slang for police, “Donaher said. “It takes place in 1966, so there is some language that may not resonate, but the humor is very slapstick and physical, so the 10-year-olds will relate to that,” Donaher said.

Craig added that both young and older audiences will appreciate the protagonist’s foolish and earnest approach in the face of adversity. The lead actor said while Hanshall continues to fall into “precarious situations,” he marches joyfully forward into the world “like a little kid on an adventure.”

“The deeper he gets he still finds a way to have fun, and hopefully that serves for the audience too."

“One Man, Two Guvnors”

Thursday, June 6 – Sunday, June 9

8 p.m., Sunday 4 p.m.

Free, 10 +

Summer Circle Theatre Stage

Between Kresge Art Building and MSU Auditorium

Theatre.msu.edu/productions

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