presented by Actors Shakespeare Project
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Somerville) Because Shakespeare has become the standard by which Western theatre is judged, we often forget that the man first had to feel his way in the dark, just like every other art school wannabe. Two Gentlemen of Verona, believed by some to be the Bard’s first play, shows frustrating snatches of his future brilliance. All his trademark comedic pieces are there (cross-dressing women, inconstant lovers and the amazing power of the wilderness to right all wrongs), but this script reads like the man was working on deadline. Themes are picked up and discarded, wordplay only sporadically catches fire and a plot point in the final act makes you want to bang Shakespeare’s head against the floorboards and scream, “Rewrite!”
Leave it to the talented troupe at the Actors’ Shakespeare Project to stage a hilarious production that succeeds largely because director Robert Walsh and his cast run towards the script’s flaws, rather than away from them. They boldly stage the play for what it is, no more, no less. By allowing the space for audience feedback during hard-to-swallow moments, this production creates a dynamic conversation on a pioneering work of theatre while simultaneously providing two hours of belly laughs.
For a Shakespeare comedy, the plot is shockingly succinct: four lovers are frustrated in their attempts to live happily ever after because of meddling parents and wavering emotions. In the beginning, Proteus (Bill Barclay) is in love with Julia (Paige Clark) in Verona, while his friend Valentine (Jaime Carrillo), who scorns love, sets off for adventure to far-off (?) Milan. With a name like Valentine, you know somebody’s going to be feeling Cupid’s arrow before halftime, and so Valentine soon falls in love with Silvia (Miranda Craigwell) in Milan, but she is above his station. Proteus gets sent away to Milan by his father, where he also falls for Silvia. Hijinks ensue.
And that’s it. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s later comedies, there are no subplots to drive the action above the level of an Elizabethan rom-com. The supporting cast has few inner workings or desires, and is only given the opportunity by Shakespeare to critique or amplify the lovers.
The temptation in a lesser production would be either to run away from the script or to embrace it with a wink and a nod, but this production carefully walks the line between reverence and scorn. The balancing act is most apparent in how Walsh deploys the supporting cast. Inner lives can’t be weaved out of thin air for the two-dimensional servants, parents and outlaws that populate the script, so Walsh instead double-casts and triple-casts the supporting actors and succeeds in having each character that swirls around the four lovers be unique and vibrant. Each becomes the best two-dimensional character that he or she can be, and it becomes fun to try and peg all the parts each actor plays.
These unsung characters create the foundation for the play’s lovers to explore being trapped in an imperfect theatrical world. No actor more embraces the tension of the incomplete script than Barclay, who is painfully fun to watch as Proteus, the lover who loses his moral compass and his self-respect as he descends into lovestruck madness. As Proteus rationalizes his treachery for love, the lines don’t even seem to make sense to him. In the final acts, he repeatedly prostrates himself and prays to love to find a way out of an increasingly untenable situation. He might as well be praying to the playwright to fix the inconsistencies in this imperfectly-drawn world, but no savior is allowed for these characters. They must muddle through, and we, the heartless voyeurs that are theatergoers, get to revel in their struggle.
It would have been nice for costume designer Miranda Kau Giurleo and scenic designer Stephanie Cohen to have joined Walsh in creating a unique vision for the play. If there’s a complaint to level about this production, it’s that there isn’t a strong decision about time and place, which leaves the characters in a void. In a way, though, that’s fitting, since Shakespeare did the exact same thing, probably while slurping the Elizabethan equivalent of Ramen noodles and dreaming about greatness.