Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Like the other "new theater kid in town," Joseph Haj at the Guthrie, Rasmussen chose to lead off by reproducing a production with which she recently had great success at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: her 2014 production of Two Gentlemen. Her creative team from OSF has brought their admirable set, costume, sound and music, and movement design to the Jungle's stage and, like the OSF production, the Jungle mounting is cast wholly with women. In fact, one of the lead actors from the earlier staging, Christiana Clark (an artist with deep Twin Cities roots) is recreating her performance as Proteus. Adding to the dazzle, Rasmussen assembled an A team of Twin Cities actors. The combination of these luscious ingredients results in a delightful soufflé of a showlovely to look at and listen to, offering a dollop of giddiness, and light as spun cotton.
Yet the play is hard to be roused about. One of Shakespeare's earliest works (some scholars cite it as his first produced play), The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a shallow tale, with stick-figure characters. As best friends Proteus and Valentine approach adulthood, Valentine goes off to Milan to be groomed as a gentleman, while Proteus opts to stay in Verona and pursue his love interest Julia. No sooner do those two coy lovers acknowledge one another than Proteus' father decides his son too needs a proper education and sends him to join Valentine in Milan. Before separating, Proteus and Julia pledge their undying love to one another.
Valentine has fallen in love with Sylvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan, who has promised her hand to Thurio, a man she detests. No sooner does Proteus arrive in Milan than he too falls head over heels for Sylvia, and abandons his devotion to Julia as a mere practice for the real thing. So smitten is Proteus that he betrays his best friend in pursuit of Sylvia. For her part, Sylvia is appalled by Proteus' inconstancy toward both his friend and his love. Fortunately, this is Shakespeare. We can count on double crosses, disguised identities, bumbling servants, thieves in the woods, unlikely acts of forgiveness, and other devices to ensure all will be well in the end.
Rasmussen gives this play a light, airy touch that befits its stature. Actors move quickly, exits and entrances often occurring simultaneously, and from all directions. The actors speak with crisp assurance, directing every bit of wit and wordplay straight to the audience. The production looks strikingly different than anything seen on the Jungle stage in quite some time. The playing area is wide open, with stark walls bathed in pink and beige lights, and portals that swiftly open and close to allow characters to come and go with ease. A balcony along the rear of the stage can be reached by climbing up or down a conveniently placed tree. Onstage seating has been installed on either side. The costumes are highly stylized, with contrasting black, white, gold, and bronze tones. The look is sumptuous, yet chilly, a Veronese layout for Vogue or GQ.
The actors in the four leading rolesChristiana Clark (Proteus), Mo Perry (Valentine), Maggie Chestovich (Julia), and Lenne Klingman (Sylvia)each play their characters well. Clark portrays a Proteus who is virile and athletic, but unstrung by his romantic nature, with strong currents of lust not far beneath the surface. When his folly is made clear, his penitence appears heartfelta credit to Clark's performance, and not Shakespeare's script, which really does feel like the work of a beginner. Perry's Valentine has a robust noble bearing. Klingman gives Sylvia a steady presence and regal bearing; her unchanging morals make her immune to Proteus' efforts to win her love. Chestovich, though, is a hair too tightly wound as Julia, both in her early protestations against love and her agonized pain upon losing it. She plays Julia as a comic character, brimming with pluck and passion, a bubbly maiden in contrast to the sober Sylvia.
The rest of the actors are double cast. Wendy Lehr does marvelous work (when is she not marvelous, I ask?) in the comic roles of Proteus' messenger, Speed and Sylvia's trusted servant Eglamour. Sha Cage passes muster in the minor role of Proteus' father, Antonio, but mints comic gold as Sylvia's suitor Thurio, whom she plays as a preening bantam. Barbara Kingsley, best known for her IVEY-winning performance as Alice B. Toklas, is delightfully teasing as Lucetta, lady's maid to Julia, and persuasively brittle as the ancient Host in Milan. George Keller is suitably majestic as the Duke of Milan, but in her second role, as Launce, she is half of a showstopping comedy team. Her partner in this team is the dog Crab (winningly played by a remarkably well-trained pooch named Bear), who passively endures Launce's ranting and cajoling. The fact is, both Launce and Crab make little difference to Two Gentleman's plot, but they add greatly to the enjoyment it offers.
And what of the casting of The Two Gentlemen of Verona entirely with women? This is the second company this season to cast a Shakespeare play this way, following Ten Thousand Things' fall mounting of Henry IV, Part I, a history play in which a man's acceptance of his destiny as a warrior, with brutal warfare as part of the plot, arguably calls into question differences in male and female sensibilities. Two Gentlemen, however, is a lightweight. Proteus is made a fool by love, while the other major characters are all moved by love, but hold true to its course. In Shakespeare's day, the male conducted the chase in love, the female was the quarry. Today, though, it doesn't matter a shred, and either a man or woman could equally be a fool or a tyrant, true or faithless, in pursuit of love. It feels to be of little importance that we are watching women play these men's roles. What is important is that they play them so well, whether it means investing these men with lust (Proteus), integrity (Valentine), coarseness (Launce), or swagger (Thurio). That high caliber of performance is indeed in evidence on the Jungle stage. If this casting does not yield fresh insights into the play, it does offer opportunities to talented actresses to expand the range of roles in which they can demonstrate their gifts.
Rasmussen's directorial debut as Jungle Theater's Artistic Director assures us of her ability to work with a strong ensemble, to manage swift movement while maintaining attention to the text, and to create an atmosphere of merry fun. She also clearly is able to draw impressive work from a design teamto say nothing of managing the unreliability of a dog holding center stage. This is lovely work, even if its depth lies in stage craft, not content. Rasmussen will next direct the Jungle's (area premiere) production of Sarah Ruhl's The Oldest Boy late in 2016, which is bound to give us an altogether different slice of her directorial vision.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona continues at the Jungle Theater through March 17, 2016. 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN, 55408. Tickets are $28.00 - $48.00, On-stage seating - $20.00 for all performances, Senior (55+) discount - $5.00 per ticket, Public Rush -$10.00 off, Student Rush (with valid ID) half price, Under 30 - $25.00, includes complimentary beverage. For tickets call 612- 822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com.
Written by William Shakespeare; Director: Sarah Rasmussen; Set Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Moira Sine Clinton; Lighting Design: Barry Browning; Original Music and Sound Design: Andre Pluess; Additional Sound Design: Sean Healey; Wig Design: Laura Adams; Fight Choreographer: Annie Enneking; Choreography: Kimiye Corwin; Vocal Coach: Mira Kehoe; Stage Manager: John Novak; Assistant Director: Katherine Pardue; Technical Director: John Stillwell
Cast: Bear (Crab), Sha Cage (Antonio, Thurio), Maggie Chestovich (Julia), Christiana Clark (Proteus), Taylor Harvey (ensemble), Maia Hernandez (ensemble), George, Keller (Launce, Duke), Barbara Kingsley (Lucetta, Host), Lenne Klingman (Sylvia), Wendy Lehr (Speed, Eglamour), Am'ber Montgomery (ensemble), Mo Perry (Valentine), Madelyn Pham (ensemble), Andrea San Miguel (Pantino, ensemble), Lily Wangerin (ensemble)