The 1590s must have been sensational and liberating times for William Shakespeare.
In his early 20s, he left his wife, three children, and provincial Stratford for raucous, exhilarating Elizabethan London, where he met his patron and, some scholars believe, his heartthrob, the Earl of Southampton. In what might be his first play (uncertain because his playwriting was upstaged by his erotically charged poem “Venus and Adonis” — dedicated to Southampton), “Two Gentleman of Verona” dramatizes two distinct worlds in Verona and Milan and the double desiring mind of Proteus, who ultimately utters the climatic line “Oh, heaven! Were man but constant, he were perfect!”
Proteus (Kyle Woods) and Valentine (Levi Hood), are inseparable friends on the threshold of adulthood. Proteus loves the faithful Julia (Devyn Tyler), but Valentine leaves Verona for Milan, where he and Silvia (Julia DeLois), the beautiful daughter of the Duke (Silas Cooper) fall in love.
The Duke, however, wants Silvia to marry the oafish Turio (Graham Burk).
Proteus follows Valentine to Milan but not before pledging his undying love to Julia. Boom! Proteus, too, falls in love with Silvia and makes the horrific decision to betray his friend to win her.
With any Shakespearean production, our foremost fear is it will be interminable and incomprehensible. Director Jessica Podewell’s uneven but pleasant, snappy, well-trimmed production aims to solve the former at the occasional expense of the latter.
Not that her attractive cast is not well spoken, but verse requires more than articulation; artful phrasing, range and emphasis are equally important. One swallowed or improperly emphasized word can kill our understanding of an entire line. Once we stop listening and settle for the gist of what is going on, the actors are sunk.
The weakest scenes in the play prove to be the weakest scenes in the production. The soliloquies are far more comprehensible than scenes played so swiftly that meaningful communication is hindered.
In many of Shakespeare’s comedies, the servants and fools get the best scenes. Here, Podewell’s actors dazzle and, ironically, they command the verses with superb musicality and vibrant energy.
Brendan Bowen as Launce, Proteus’ much put-upon servant (yes, the one with the dog) is simply brilliant. He proves himself the master of range and phrasing, skillfully wringing out every possible laugh while maintaining an enthralling air of spontaneity.
His monologues, along with scenes of clever wordplay with Valentine’s servant, Speed (played with infectious liveliness and excellent timing by James Bartelle) are worth the price of admission.
Mary Guiteras, as Luchetta, Julia’s whip-smart, wise-cracking maid, is most engaging.
Graham Burk’s paranoid, self-inflated Turio is absolutely hilarious. I defy anyone to watch his flirtatious attempt to seduce Silvia via song and dance and not find it side-splittingly funny.
Dark and secretive,Woods humanizes the most difficult role of Proteus as he underplays the villainy, comic or otherwise. And with his boyish good looks, Hood brings passionate intensity to Valentine.
Tyler’s smart, confident Julia is rock-solid. Her soliloquies entertain and her final moment with Proteus is complex.
Silvia, a remarkably progressive female for the late 16th century, is forcefully portrayed by DeLois.
This production suffers from uninspired designs and some unflattering costumes. (What is with those shoes that so encumber poor Proteus?) Labored scene changes don’t help much, either. The music, an odd combination of European café ditties and contemporary electronic euro-lounge vibes, is a bit of a head-scratcher.
To her credit, Podewell, who curiously chose to downplay the contrast between unadventurous Verona and racy Milan, succeeds in making one of the least credible and creepiest happy endings somehow acceptable.
Fans of the bard will enjoy spotting prototypes of his future work in this play. We see the seeds of “Othello’s” Iago, the lovers in “Midsummer,” and Viola/Olivia from “Twelfth Night.”
Bruce Burgun is a retired professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.