Two Gentlemen of Verona

2 gemts

Photo by Shmuel Thaler

By Philip Pearce

BEFORE HEADING for the opening of Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s new production of this comedy I did my homework and read The Two Gentlemen of Verona. As a working script, it seemed to me it presented some major challenges. Eventful plot, but it strained credulity to the bursting point. The verbal humor featured a lot of word play based on phrases no longer defined or even pronounced the way they were back in 1590. And the tangle of plot complications got resolved with a breakneck speed that raised a mental picture of the original cast halting the dress rehearsal while Will crouched in the wings sweating out the last page and a half of script.

All in all, I concluded Santa Cruz Shakespeare had their work cut out for them. But there’s nothing better than a happy theatrical surprise.

An imaginative director named Art Manke, nineteen committed actors and one talented dog have turned Shakespeare’s grab bag of a text into two hours of gorgeous comic delight in the Grove at DeLaveaga Park.

It takes place in Italy, with two lifelong friends, Proteus and Valentine, traveling from their native Verona to adventures in the big city of Milan. So Manke sets the story in a Fellini world full of noisy Italian motorbikes, paparazzi flash bulbs and offstage Mafia gunfire. It‘s a wonderful choice.

Probably Shakespeare’s first produced play, Two Gentlemen suffers from an apprentice playwright’s tendency to write too many scenes that happen between just two talking heads. But that scarcely matters when these duologues take place while most of the rest of the cast create background activity in a Verona bath house, or among a party of Catholic churchgoers on a Sunday morning, or with some up-market night club patrons on a swinging Saturday night in Milan. Sound designer Steven Cahill provides exciting explosions of music to introduce and punctuate these vignettes. B. Modern’s costumes are a shifting whirligig of black and white shapes and textures. Ensemble members become Catholic nuns in big white wimples floating in and out like Venetian pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. Silvia is a media celebrity pursued not only by both leading men but by battalions of shouting reporters and photographers.

The Fellini touches are deft and funny but they never get in the way of telling the story. This production meets that responsibility admirably with clear speech and sharp characterizations.

Proteus of Verona has to be one of the most flawed and unlikeable leading men in the canon of Shakespeare comedy. Having formally sworn lifelong loyalty to his friend Valentine and eternal devotion to his hometown sweetheart Julia, he deceives them both by secretly plotting to snatch the toothsome Silvia from under the unsuspecting nose of her faithful fiancé Valentine. Without downplaying any of the man’s faults and flaws, Brian Smolin doesn’t miss the leavening moments of humor, notably in Proteus’s wheeler-dealer campaign to persuade Silvia’s ducal father, acted with a lot of dash and self-importance by the lithe Allen Gilmore, to turn over the lady to him, including her big ducal fortune.

As the accommodating Valentine, Rowan Vickers is inevitably a bit of a chronic victim, but he does great work with the awkward closing reconciliation with Proteus. Before his change of heart, there’s a long reflective pause that makes the hasty turnaround touching and even borderline believable.

Tristan Cunningham is charming as the sought-after Silvia. Under all the pop couture and media attention, she’s a level headed young woman, unwaveringly loyal to the doting Valentine and icily adamant in rejecting the wiles of the sneaky Proteus.

Julia, fourth member of the romantic quartet, played with winsome wit and pathos by Grace Rao, is an even more interesting character. She has the distinction of being the first in Shakespeare’s line of forthright cross-dressing heroines as she sets out in male disguise to track down the wandering Proteus. Like Viola in Twelfth Night, she finds herself having to serve the man she loves by delivering his love notes to another woman.

But, truth to tell, Two Gentlemen has always been best known not for its top-billed lovers but for a pair of clownish underlings named Launce and Speed and a dog named Crab you may have seen charming Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love. When Crab and the two zanies take the stage at Santa Cruz, the mood shifts from 1960s Italian glitz to fast-talking 1930s American vaudeville, done with split-second timing and a lot of slick assurance. Speed is acted with appropriate zip, a pair of roller skates and some flashy white angel wings by the athletic Adam Schroeder. Proteus’s lackey Launce, precursor to a succession of funny philosophical comics like Touchstone in As You Like It and Feste in Twelfth Night, is played by the wondrously wry and funny Patty Gallagher. Dressed like Giulietta Masina in La Strada, she has a love-hate relationship with her dog Crab, played by a sly spaniel named Lucy, who is uncredited in the cast list. (I can only assume Lucy was auditioned and cast after the program was printed.) Scorning perkiness or tricks, Lucy remains calm and purposeful even when she’s immobilizing Launce by encircling that lady’s legs in a long flexible leash. It’s an interpretation that justifies Launce’s hilarious account of how she left town for Milan with floods of tears from everyone in her household except the stolid and stone-hearted Crab. Together, Gallagher and Lucy are the best comedy duo since Nichols and May.

So, for a lot of fun and a lesson in the crafty direction of Elizabethan comedy, this is a show to see and savor. It plays in repertory with Measure for Measure and The 39 Steps through September 3rd.