In the Great Lakes Theater Festival’s last production, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), there is a bit where the performers combine the plots from all of the Bard’s comedies into one madcap, convoluted reading. The justification is that all of his comedies recycle the same plot devices. And with the prevalence of cross-dressing, mis-matched, young lovers in his comedies, this justification has a good deal of truth in it.
This is what I had on my mind when I saw their current play Two Gentlemen of Verona with fellow Cleveland theatrephile Poise in Parma – because Two Gentlemen is not just one of Shakespeare’s 15+ comedies, it’s also considered by many to be his earliest.
As one of his earliest, Two Gentlemen of Verona is sometimes criticized as one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays. When reading it, you can see a playwright’s first tentative steps in exploring the themes he would go on to master in later works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (one of my personal favorites).
And while you can view it in a negative light (my biggest criticism being the characters are rough sketches with questionably flighty motivations), you can also choose to view it as a sign of great things to come, a sampling of Shakespeare’s early potential.
When I think about it this way, there’s a certain level of excitement in seeing his early experimentations in playwriting. There are techniques and variations on themes he employs which are quite good for early writing and, above all else, he does an excellent job in his usage of the Clown character to mock the romantic love that is central to the plot.
Charles Fee, Two Gentlemen’s Director and GLTF Producing Artistic Director, embraces that spirit of experimentation throughout the production’s staging (you can read his Director’s Note for more background). As with their Fall production of Othello, there is a contemporary feel to Two Gentlemen through the use of modern costuming and setting.
For instance, Silvia, the daughter of the Duke of Milan and Valentine’s and Proteus’ (the two gents) love interest, enters and exits the stage often to the flashing of cameras much like a modern-day celebritante. It is this dazzling style that even Julia (Proteus’ former love) notes as a reason why Proteus so quickly changes his attentions from his own betrothed love to that of his best friend’s.
Designer Star Moxley’s costumes help achieve that runway feel in the production, which is very fitting for modern Milan. Silvia’s appearance is chic and worldly and I loved how Proteus – in an attempt to woo Silvia – sheds his more relaxed, light look for the sunglasses and dark colored garb of a male model.
GLTF also weaves modern music into the play with a live band tucked very subtly upstage and some of the actors – ‘invisible’ to the main characters – singing around the action. Subsequently, the play opens and ends with this band of musicians and various scenes throughout are punctuated by it.
I enjoyed the idea because Shakespeare’s script, in fact, calls for musicians and the indie, modern folk and rock songs furthered the contemporary feel. However, unlike last year’s Midsummer Night’s Dream whose placement of Beatles songs throughout added something specific to each scene, there were times in Two Gentlemen where I didn’t feel the individual song choice added much besides a bit of moodscaping. They sometimes felt interchangeable.
Above all other aspects of the production design, though, it was Russell Metheny’s scenic design that impressed me most. It was reminiscent of Metheny’s Othello design from earlier in the season, with a multi-use, framework setpiece dominating the stage. However, its subtle arches and the stylized windows that were flown in to mark a difference between Verona and Milan really added an urbane feel. It was the perfect complement to Moxley’s costumes and I thought that even the forest design (my favorite design, actually) had a stylized, fashionable sense to it.
Despite the contemporary setting, Great Lakes Theater Festival’s production stayed true in their portrayal of the characters. Neil Brookshire and Paul Hurley, as Valentine and Proteus, were spot-on with their depictions of the love-sick gentlemen, while Lee Stark made me sympathetic for the fawning and abandoned Julia and Nika Ericson for the strong-willed Silvia who finds herself stuck as the object of affection for too many young men. Although the characters themselves are not my favorite pairs of Shakespearean young lovers, the actors did an excellent job in conveying the rich, romantic language of the play.
As usual, though, it was the comedic servants of Valentine and Proteus that in my mind were the best part of the show. Speed and Launce, played by veteran GLTF actors M.A. Taylor and David Anthony Smith, respectively, are the characters I turned to when the young lovers became a bit too frustrating. Launce and his cur Crab (played by canine actors Mojo and Rallo) were the first time in his writing that Shakespeare was successful in employing the Clown archetype. And it’s Speed and Launce’s various mockeries of romantic love that help me overlook and laugh at some of the play’s flaws as Shakespeare seems to poke fun at it himself.
So, although the play itself is not the strongest of Shakespeare’s works, I’d recommend seeing GLTF’s production. The costumes and scenic design are fun to behold and the actors in typical GLTF fashion are skilled in their portrayals. Plus, if you tire of some of the characters’ ludicrous behavior, just laugh along at them with Speed and Launce.
Great Lakes Theatre Festival 411:
Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Hanna Theatre