Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Two Gents… or… Are They?

Review of The Playmakers' Two Gentlemen of Verona
8 September 2013

Two Gentlemen of Verona is a problematic play… especially the ending. But it’s also one of the funnier ones, and, when well done, as fledgling company the Playmakers proved, it can be riveting and delightful and frustrating and adorable and aggravating and ridiculous all rolled into one. But then, that’s kind of life, isn’t it? Seldom are things quite as cut and dried as we would like, and happy and silly emotions come mingled with frustration and sorrow and pain. So why should a play from a playwright known for his keen grasp of human nature be simple or easy?

It’s a typical Best Friends Both In Love With The Same Girl story, complete with backstabbing, betrayal, unexpected forgiveness and reconciliation. You see, Proteus has a girl (Julia, played by Kayla Lian) and Valentine doesn’t. But Valentine leaves town and instantly falls for Silvia (Foss Curtis). Then Proteus follows Valentine and discovers Silvia for himself. Proteus and Valentine are practically brothers – and Zach Virden (Proteus) and Colton Ruscheinsky (Valentine) bring this out exceptionally well. The feeling you got was not so much that Proteus was really in love with Silvia, but that he couldn’t leave his best friend’s shiny new toy alone, and that all his own cool toys paled in comparison with the novelty of something that belongs to someone else. Immature? Yes. But honestly… aren’t we all sometimes?

Julia really does love Proteus. I’m not really sure why. We don’t get to see too much of the chemistry between Julia and Proteus. Most of what we do see is the two of them making cow eyes at each other and bemoaning the fact that Proteus must leave town for a while. This is where I see the play falling down a bit… and I don’t think it’s this production in particular; it’s Shakespeare’s fault. But, there was  a moment when Virden and Lian showed us that these two probably are a very good match: Proteus and Julia (who at this point is dressed as a boy), are teasing Silvia’s other suitor, Thurio (Josh Gulotta). Their verbal banter and witty wordplay show that they at least have the same sense of humor and probably would be quite good friends, in spite of the romantic side of things.

And it’s important to the plot that Julia and Proteus really are a good match… because even though he leaves her and finds himself “in love” with Silvia (who recognizes him for the worm that he is and despises him for it), in the end he apologizes for everything and goes back to Julia. Does she take him back? Is all forgiven and forgotten? Well… possibly forgiven, but the look on Lian’s face as they walked off together was a pretty good indication that Proteus’s indiscretion would not be forgotten for quite some time.

Valentine, meanwhile, has a wonderful speech about being banished from his Silvia – very reminiscent of Romeo’s, except that Valentine’s is somehow even more touching and feels a bit more sincere instead of just ridiculous. Or perhaps it’s just because we looked ahead in the story and know that Two Gents ends well and Romeo and Juliet doesn’t.

And while Ruscheinsky made it easy to love Valentine throughout the play, Virden made it very easy to love Proteus as he grapples with his decision to dump Julia and pursue Silvia… and just as easy to hate him when he’s plotting against his best friend. But we wouldn’t be so frustrated over Proteus’s stupid choice if we didn’t care for him as a character to begin with.

I would be remiss if I didn’t even mention Lance (Max Maller) and the dog, Crab. The play would be funny enough without them… but once you add the monologue about the dog into the story, it becomes pure gold, and Maller nailed it. (For my taste, one or two of the clown’s more bawdy jokes were overemphasized, but I feel like that’s because there was so little “adult humor” in the rest of it that the more PG-13 things stood out.)

On the technical side of things, the entire cast handled Shakespeare’s wordplay and potentially awkward rhyming couplets very well. My only complaint on that point was that occasionally, when they were facing the other way or when it was a quiet, poignant moment, or when the traffic on Interstate Ave. got noisy, I couldn’t hear all the dialogue. The courtyard at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center is an intimate enough space that this shouldn’t have been a problem… but for some reason, it was. The space seemed perfect for this kind of production, though, and director Avital Shira had the actors use the many levels well.

I also enjoyed the musical interludes. Kate Berman has a beautiful voice… and a well-timed chorus from “Falling in Love is Wonderful” or “Why Can’t You Behave?” or “As Time Goes By” added a modern note of irony to the age-old story. Props to Musical Director Amir Shirazi.

So Two Gents may be a problematic play plot-wise, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a delightful show, and a thought-provoking one. Was Shakespeare being facetious when he titled it Two Gentlemen of Verona? Because neither Proteus nor Valentine really act like my definition of gentlemen. At least not to the girls. But then, maybe the play is more about the friendship between the guys than it is the romances with the girls. Hmmm… something to think about.

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