An Update Of Shakespeare's Early Work Provides An Amusing, Enchanting Evening.
By Margaret Regan
EVEN SHAKESPEARE WAS young once. A plucky new Arizona Theatre Company production of his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona, transposed to the Roaring Twenties, gives audiences a taste of his early handiwork. Written in the early 1690s, probably when the future Bard was about 28 years old, the play precedes by one or two decades the most enduring of Shakespeare's comedies, masterpieces such as The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Two Gentlemen is a mostly silly story about two young friends, one faithful to true love, the other faithful to passing lust, trying their fortune in the big city.
Shakespeare lovers can find many of his future trademarks in Two Gents: exalted love, a corrupt city, redeeming nature, a banished hero, a treacherous friend, a heroine disguised as a man, ribald servants whose raunchy humor comments on the highfalutin' aspirations of the main characters. Seen in more effective form in later works from As You Like It to Romeo and Juliet, these motifs are still clunky in the young Shakespeare's hands. The romantic hero of Two Gents is distressingly dimwitted, for instance, the outlaws are improbably agreeable and the soliloquies on the nature of love and moral choice are overly ambitious for the slim story. And the happy ending, well, it's just impossible.
But the cheerful play is also full of what director David Ira Goldstein calls "heart," a young and gleeful pleasure in all the delicious contrivances that the stage has to offer. (Perhaps that's why the newly renovated Globe Theatre in London, Shakespeare's own stomping grounds, has also chosen this neglected play as its inaugural work.) Goldstein, ATC's artistic director, has wisely steered clear of any attempts to leach some moral significance out of the play, staging it instead as a pure farce. And as farce, the play is a comic delight, turned out with boisterous enthusiasm by a solid cast.
It was a happy inspiration to pull the play out of Renaissance Italy and thrust it into the Hollywood of the 1920s, when silent movies were king and brand-new fortunes bubbled up like the gin at a speakeasy. A jazz score underlines the era's giddy feeling that anything is possible, and ingenious false-front sets (by Bill Forrester) turn the whole production into an ephemeral film backlot. The two young heroes, Valentine the dim-but-steadfast (Benjamin Livingston), and Proteus the protean (Sheffield Chastain), abandon their sorry hometown of Verona, dressed down as a Midwestern town whose biggest attraction is the church pancake breakfast. Proteus leaves behind his true-love-of-the moment, Julia (Stacy Ross), a loyal lover who later will follow him in disguise.
The two buddies head separately for Milan--read Tinseltown--where the Duke has been transformed into a bellicose, suited producer (ATC veteran Benjamin Stewart), his daughter the lovely Silvia (Sabrina LeBeauf) into a star of the silver screen, and her unworthy suitor Thurio (Dan Hiatt, with a suitably Barrymore profile), a supercilious matinee idol. Both the young gentlemen of Verona fall in love with Silvia, Valentine honorably, Proteus dishonorably, and the chief moral conflict of the play entails Proteus weighing the demands of friendship against the demands of his own flesh.
The Hollywood setting provides for some of the production's best visual gags. Co-stars Silvia and Thurio are filming a succession of movie clichés--an Egyptian pic, a vampire flick, a Louis XIV fiasco--and Thurio ruins take after take by losing his bloody teeth, flipping off his pompadour wig, and so on. The servants of the two young gentlemen, Speed and Lance (Bob Sorenson and Jeff Steitzer), do the usual Shakespeare lowlife banter, which has wisely been trimmed of its more arcane allusions. The outlaw gang, transformed into a trio of doofus cowboys, are wholly at home on the Arizona range.
As a matter of fact, the whole enterprise, what with its flappers and motorcycles and serenades and a full-cast Charleston danced to Shakespeare's words, is downright loony. And yet this beguiling production, where all the world's a silver screen, somehow rescues this 300-year-old play from dusty death. For ATC, as it begins its 30th year, that's no mean feat.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona continues through Saturday, October 5, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets, ranging from $18 to $27, are available at the box office and through Dillard's. Half-price tickets are sold one hour before curtain time. Call 622-2823 for reservations and information. Dillard's number is 1-800-638-4253.
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