A comedy of uneven proportions

Theater: `Two Gentlemen of Verona' is blessed with fine acting but burdened by inconsistencies.

April 04, 2001|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

Like most successful comedies, there's a palpable ache in "Two Gentlemen of Verona," and the Shakespeare Theatre production homes right in on it before a single word is spoken.

Director Douglas Wager begins the story in Verona Beach, N.J., in the 1950s, where a group of teens is throwing a goodbye party for one of the gang, who is traveling to Milan.

Good-natured horseplay between two best friends gradually escalates, until the punches and flying limbs are no longer in jest. Finally, Valentine, the bigger boy - blond, good-looking, well-heeled - triumphs over his opponent, Proteus, who is slighter, poorer and lower middle-class.

The expressions on their faces say it all. We sense the competitiveness underlying this staunch friendship, and we sense Proteus' fierce hunger, born from feelings of inferiority.

It's an inspired stroke, and it sets up everything that comes later. We aren't surprised when Proteus spurns his true love, Julia, because he distrusts any woman who would want him. We don't blink when Proteus courts Valentine's fiancee, Silvia, or when he later betrays the lovers.

So far, so good. But "Gentlemen" is an odd hybrid of a play, and many directors - including, unfortunately, Wager - have been unable to resolve its wild inconsistencies in tone and subject matter.

Partly, the play probes the emotions that arise when same-sex friendships are supplanted by romantic love. Shakespeare explores this fraught passage often, most pointedly in "A Merchant of Venice" and "Antony and Cleopatra" but also in "Twelfth Night," "Romeo and Juliet" and even "Love's Labour's Lost."

Unlike many Shakespeare plays, "Gentlemen" ends by retreating from the turbulence of romantic love into the relative calm of platonic companionship. Also, the second half of "Gentlemen" is driven by occurrences so improbable they border on the surreal. At these moments, the play seems a throwback to commedia dell'arte, a theatrical style characterized by stock figures and physical comedy.

What's a director to do?

Apparently, Wager decided to make a virtue of necessity by emphasizing the play's inherent fissures, rather than imposing an arbitrary unity.

Unlike the Americans, who are portrayed relatively naturally, the people of Milan are cartoon characters, complete with thick Italian accents, extra cheese.

The logic is faulty - if anything, the visitors would have accents, not the native-born speakers. Even worse, the hokey accent trivializes the Duke of Milan's daughter, the admirable Silvia. She becomes nothing more than a vain, blond, flirtatious Marilyn Monroe look-alike. Lost are Silvia's courage, compassion and wit.

Nor is that the only questionable call. Set designer Zach Brown represents the forest in Mantua as the interior of a '50s bachelor pad; when Valentine extols the virtues of an untrammeled wilderness, there's nary a leaf in sight. And that's no minor oversight. Shakespeare's woods play an important thematic role, functioning as a corrective for the overly rigid laws imposed by society - a theme that's deliberately downplayed.

The acting, at least, is a reliable source of pleasure. This production showcases two masters of the comic monologue: Julia Dion as Julia, and Floyd King as Proteus' servant Launce. Dion is the epitome of a giddy schoolgirl, tearing a letter from an ardent admirer into furious little pieces, then tenderly cooing over each ragged scrap.

And King provides the purest example of selfless loyalty in the play, as a servant devoted beyond all reason to a mangy mutt. King's funniest lines are based in his matter-of-fact delivery, just as his physical comedy is grounded in small gestures. Fine performances also were delivered by Donald Corren as Valentine's servant, Speed; Naomi Jacobson as Julia's servant, Lucetta; and Paul Whitthorne as Proteus.

The cast is so good it almost - but not quite - redeems Wager's lapses, which reach their nadir in the play's closing moments: Julia, who follows Proteus disguised as a boy, reveals her true identity by ripping open her blouse and baring her breasts.

By succumbing to slapstick, Wager eliminates any possibility that the audience will understand that Proteus' search has ended happily at last, that he has found both a disinterested friend and passionate lover in the person of his Julia.

`Two Gentlemen'

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW, Washington

When: 7;30 p.m. most Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Through May 20

Admission: $14.25-$62

Call: 202-547-1122

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