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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona Meets the Godfather

Also see Richard's reviews of Goin' Dot Com - the Musical and
Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean

Each year, the Marin Shakespeare Festival presents an inventive production of a Shakespearean play, and this year is no exception. Last year it was a western version of Taming of the Shrew and the current festival opens with a Fellini-esque version of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Two Gentlemen will run in repertoire with Beaumont and Fletcher’s little-produced burlesque The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The Bard’s classic Romeo and Juliet will be the last production, starting on August 26 and running through September 25. The plays are being presented in the outside amphitheatre on the grounds of the Dominican University in San Rafael.

Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of Shakespeare’s earliest and least well-formed comedies, seems an odd choice for an outdoor theatre. It is the first play in which the Bard experimented with cross-dressing, with a young girl disguised as a boy. It is not one of the playwright’s greatest plays, but it does serve as a reference for his better romantic comedies that come later. In the two-hour two-act comedy, the words can be a bit bare at times, and the play requires good direction as well as good acting to bring out the full conflict of the story. The Marin Shakespeare group has done a superb production on both of these counts. The production boasts a strong cast of knowledgeable Shakespearean actors to make this a fun filled evening with a modern Italian flair.

Proteus (Andrew Fonda Jackson) and Valentine (Joshua Hollister) are two gentlemen who travel to Milan from Verona and learn about the world of courtship. Valentine leaves the city to work in the service of the Duke of Milan (Julian Lopez-Morillas) while his friend Proteus remains behind to be near the woman he loves, a lovely farm girl named Julia (Laurie Keith). Proteus’ father Antonio (Jarion Monroe) orders him to attend the Duke’s court and he is forced to leave Julia behind, but he swears an oath of constancy to her. Valentine brings along his hip, streetwise servant Speed (Darren Bridgett) who makes witty comments about his master throughout the production while Proteus drags poor peasant Launce (George Maguire) away from his parents and his love life with the maid. His only comfort is his sad-eyed beagle Crab.

Proteus arrives in Milan to discover that Valentine has fallen in love with the Duke’s daughter, the beautiful Silvia (Julia Motyka). However, the Duke, dressed like a Mafia boss in black suit and white shirt, wants Sylvia to marry the wealthy and idiotic Thurio (David Alan Moss) who is slightly on the fey side. Valentine confides in his friend Proteus and reveals his plan to elope with Sylvia. However, Proteus has become infatuated with the sexy woman and betrays the plan to the Duke. When Valentine is discovered carrying a rope ladder, he is banished from Milan. In the forest, he encounters a band of silly outlaws who immediately elect him their leader because he has class and is one good looking guy.

All good Shakespeare plays must have complications, so Julia disguises herself as a boy called Sebastian to see what’s going on with her intended, and she is devastated when she accidentally overhears him declare his passion for Sylvia. So she enters Proteus’ service as a page. Proteus sends Sebastian with a message to Sylvia and Julia becomes overjoyed because his advances have been rejected. Sylvia remains faithful to Valentine with the help of Sir Eglamour, a former lover, and escapes into the forest to join her true love Valentine. The Duke and Thurio set out in pursuit, followed by Proteus and Julia who is still disguised as a butch boy. Sylvia is captured by the crazy outlaws and is rescued by Proteus who attempts to rape her. However, as in a good “gold rush” melodrama, Valentine comes to rescue her from the evil deed. Suddenly Proteus sees that he has been an S.O.B., a reconciliation between the two old friends begins, and Julia gets her boyfriend back. All of this in the blink of an eye and, as the Bard would say in another of his plays, "all's well that ends well.”

Shakespeare wisely uses fools to make serious statements about life and love and to expose the folly of the main characters. Speed makes wonderful comments on Proteus' love life while Launce and his dog Crab make light of everything going on stage. Both of these wonderful comic characters have the best speeches about love and life in their soliloquies. Speed's sharpest witticisms about love are hilarious while Launce reprimands his cute animal for being the “sourest natured dog” and having “no more pity in him than a dog.”

Director James Dunn has assembled a marvelous cast and has done some marvelous things in the production to make it look like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather meets the Bard’s words, with a touch of Federico Fellini thrown into the mix. Speed enters the first act on a Vespa, straight out of La Dolce Vita, looking like an Italian Brooklyn citizen wearing a pork pie hat, spouting and acting like a trendy streetwise kid. It’s a great showcase for his talent as a comic.

Joshua Hollister is excellent in the role of Valentine. He is primarily an opera and musical comedy singer but he makes his first foray into Shakespeare’s world an impressive debut. His marvelous voice is featured in the second act when he sings the famous “who is Sylvia?” speech to music by sound designer Billie Cox. Andrew Fonda Jackson (2005 ACT graduate) is sophisticated and smooth as the villainous Proteus. Julia Motyka (recently Off Broadway in We Got Issues) as Sylvia is sexy with a voice to match. Laurie Keith (recently Laurey in Oklahoma! at the Mountain Play) is wonderful, especially when dressed as a boy in the second act.

George Maguire disproves that old adage by W.C. Fields, “Never work with a child or animal.” Both George and the beagle played by Sydney are marvelous. George and Sydney have amazing, sad faces and they are captivating together. His speech and actions seem to be patterned after the Oscar-winning Italian actor Robert Benigni. Darren Bridgett (a BATCC nomination for She Stoops to Conquer) gives a five star performance with his Brooklynese-Italian accent and manner. His asides on love are priceless. Julian Lopez Morillas, once again proving to be a great classic actor with a super voice, is first rate as the Duke, playing it like a Mafia boss, while David Alan Moss is great as the flamboyant Thurio. Jarion Monroe plays several parts admirably, from the mobster godfather to a silly outlaw of the forest. Ian Swift as the over-posing Frenchman Eglamour goes over the top comically in his movements and fractured French. He plays the role like an actor in a Georges Feydeau farce. Mary Knoll has one great scene in the first act as Lucetta. She acts and looks like a real estate agent in Beverly Hills. In the second act she is back as a very silly outlaw who should be in Pirates of Penzance. Rounding out the cast are the harebrained clowns played by Yoonie Cho, Mitchell Field and Mairin Lee, who look like something out of a Ringling Brothers circus.

Bruce Lackovic has designed a flat set that looks like a two-story opera house in Europe with painted curtains and boxes where some of the action occurs. Costumes by Patricia Polen are straight out of an Italian gangster films, including a stunning white suite with black shirt and black tie worn by Valentine.

Two Gentlemen Of Verona will run in repertoire with The Knight of the Burning Pestle through August 14th at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Grand Ave. Dominican University of California, San Rafael. Romeo and Juliet will open there on August 26th and run through September 25. For tickets please call 415-499-4488 or visit www.marinshakespeare.org for more information.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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