Be patient. The first half of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is slow going. But the play takes off after intermission, and its many pleasures are worth the wait.
The featherweight plot follows Valentine, a bachelor who goes off to Milan to seek career opportunities, and Proteus, who stays behind to be with his love, Julia. But soon after, Proteus’s parents decide to send him to Milan as well, where he finds Valentine in the throes of his own romantic attraction to the Duke’s daughter. Silvia reciprocates Valentine’s feelings, but has been promised to the buffoonish Turio. Smitten, Proteus disclaims his former love and pursues Silvia himself—until Julia shows up disguised as a page, Sebastian. The plot is further complicated by the presence of some memorable servants, a dog, and a roving band of outlaws.
Two Gentlemen is one of Shakespeare’s early efforts, and the script contains a number of rookie-playwright flaws, like lots of talk that doesn’t advance the action—including a good deal of wordplay that hasn’t stood the test of time. There are other reasons why it isn’t produced very often: conflicts are resolved on a dime, the sexual politics are troglodytic, and did I mention the dog?
Director Scott Bellis confronts all these problems head-on. Some of his solutions work better than others.
In the first half, the tactic seems to be to have everyone ham it up and add lots of comic business; most of the actors are goofing around at full throttle. Early on, Julia receives a letter from Proteus, tears it up, and then reads the little scraps. Kate Besworth makes great comic hay of this scene, kissing the scraps, smacking the one with her name on it to punish herself—it’s inventive and fun, but it goes on forever and nothing is really happening. In the next scene, Proteus’s father is doing taxidermy on a pheasant when its head pops off. It’s funny for a few seconds, but it has nothing to do with the scene. Bellis has also interpolated some contemporary puns into the dialogue, but few of these redeem the effort.
But then, after intermission, we meet the outlaws, who capture Valentine and his servant, Speed, in the woods. I don’t want to give anything away, because the surprises here are so delicious. Let’s just say that the presence of the outlaws lifts the entire production to a new level of complexity, hilarity, and contemporary resonance—all the way to Bellis’s ingenious ending.
Even when the story isn’t cooking, it’s hard not to appreciate the physical energy and infectious good humour of the cast, who are clearly having a ball. Nadeem Phillip’s Valentine is sensually grounded, while Chirag Naik’s Speed maniacally bounces off him. Proteus’s character is as changeable as the name suggests, but Charlie Gallant always makes sense of his feelings, and he accompanies himself on the mandolin for a sweet-voiced serenade to Silvia. As the servant Launce, Andrew Cownden has the unenviable task of sharing the stage with Gertie the basset hound, who plays Launce’s dog, Crab. Gertie, already a local media sensation, steals every scene she’s in with her impenetrable stare, but Cownden is such a resourceful clown that he’s never entirely upstaged. Paul Moniz de Sà brings depth and dignity to the role of Silvia’s friend Eglamour, and Luisa Jojic, Carmela Sison, and Olivia Hutt shine as a pivotal trio of supporting characters.
Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg creates a number of athletic pas de deux as lovers consummate their feelings, and Adrian Muir’s dramatic lighting often bathes the stage in a rosy glow. Mara Gottler’s costumes range from the elaborately layered garb of the servants to the simple barefoot-and-breeches look of the gentlemen.
For pure silliness, Two Gentlemen is unmatched among this year’s Bard offerings. Thankfully, the silliness eventually accumulates into a satisfying whole.