The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Also see Sharon's review of Lizard
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is not the most memorable of Shakespeare's plays. Indeed, although I'd read it once and seen it twice, I would have been hard pressed to recount the plot. I had forgotten that Proteus was in love with Julia. I had forgotten that Proteus's best friend, Valentine, went off to Milan to find his fortune. I had forgotten that, in Milan, Valentine fell in love with Silvia. I had forgotten that Proteus's father sent him to Milan to join his friend. I had forgotten that Proteus immediately forgot all about Julia and fell in love with Silvia. I had forgotten that Proteus arranged it so that Valentine was banished, in order to clear his path to Silvia. I had forgotten that Silvia remained true to Valentine, and rejected Proteus's advances.
Here's what I remembered: Silvia runs away to the forest, where Valentine had been banished. Proteus, annoyed that Silvia rejected him, tries to rape Silvia. Valentine intervenes and saves Silvia. Proteus has a change of heart and apologizes to Valentine (although not, I note, to Silvia). Valentine accepts Proteus's apology and takes him back as his best buddy. And, just to show that he's sincere about it, Valentine offers Sylvia to Proteus. She's the love of his life and Proteus tried to rape her less than half a page ago, but Valentine says, "All that was mine in Silvia I give to thee." Ridiculous! (As it happens, Proteus doesn't take him up on it, but that's only because Julia - who had followed him to Milan in drag - intervenes.) But it is because of Valentine's most un-gentlemanly offer that I join those who consider The Two Gentlemen of Verona to be something of a problem play. One of the main things I look for in a production of this play is how it deals with this little blip in Valentine's ethical radar.
I was even more intrigued after I'd read Ben Donenberg's Director's Note in the program for Shakespeare Festival/LA's production, because he basically disagrees with those who see this play as problematic - and instead sees it as a meaningful study of the power of love and the crazy things it makes people do. OK, then, how does Donenberg deal with Valentine giving Silvia to Proteus? He changes the text. After Valentine says "All that was mine in Silvia I give to thee," he adds a line about letting the lady choose which of them she wants. I was absolutely stunned. (Donenberg may have also omitted a pair of lines resolving the Proteus/Julia plot in order to reach the ending he wanted, although, to tell you the truth, I was so surprised by the new dialogue that came out of Valentine's mouth, I might have just missed them.)
It is not easy to call Donenberg on changing the text. As Founding Artistic Director of Shakespeare/LA, he has brought 20 years of Shakespeare - and with free performances - to Los Angeles. More than that, his productions are often inventive and accessible - bringing the words of Shakespeare alive for audiences who may have previously thought Shakespeare too difficult and distant to be of any relevance. But, at the same time, an argument can be made that precisely because Donenberg’s intended audience is often new to Shakespeare, he has a greater obligation to either be true to the text, or honestly admit that he’s tweaking it. In this production, Donenberg has reset things into “the summer of love,” with some good sixties tunes and some hippie attitudes. It certainly works with his interpretation for Valentine to say something as “women’s liberated” as letting Silvia choose which man she wants. It just isn’t what Shakespeare wrote.
Setting that aside, the production largely works. Graham Hamilton takes a bit of time to get going as Proteus, but once he meets Silvia and the ethical dilemma arises, he’s really terrific. Hamilton’s Proteus isn’t a straightforward villain - he’s a guy who is having real difficulty dealing with the conflict between his brain, which is telling him to be faithful to his best friend and his girlfriend, and his “little brain,” which is telling him something else entirely. Raina Simone Moore is a strong Silvia - her go-go boots speak of a “talk to the hand” attitude and she is completely believable when she not only rejects Proteus’s advances but tells him he should be ashamed for even trying. Valentine is pretty much the innocent good man, and A.K. Murtadha does a convincing, if unremarkable, job. The weak link in the four lovers is Julia. Cheryl Tsai’s first act performance frequently involves reading her lines as quickly as possible (often with anger) without really reaching for their meaning. She is much more successful after the intermission, when Julia is genuinely hurt by Proteus’s breach of trust, but still has feelings for him.
Excellent performances are turned in by Travis Vaden as Speed, and Anthony Manough as Launce, the two comic-relief servants. Both Vaden and Manough display not only a complete understanding of their lines, but also how to make them funny for modern audiences, and they are both delightful whenever they’re on stage. And the whole show is nicely wrapped up in a warm, nostalgic view of the sixties that makes you want to put a flower in your hair and dance in the rain. Judged on its own, it’s a sweet production. As a faithful Two Gents, however, it falls short.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona completed its run at Downtown’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and will have additional performances July 26-30th at South Coast Botanic Garden. For information, see www.shakespearefestivalla.org.
Shakespeare Festival/LA presents William Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Directed by Ben Donenberg; Scenic Design Fred Duer; Lighting Design Trevor Norton; Costume Design Linda C. Davisson; Sound System Designer Drew Dalzell; Producer Sara Adelman; Production Stage Manager Darlene Miyakawa.