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Social aspirations, schoolboy rivalries, and centuries-old codes of honor tangle in The Two Gentlemen of Veronaat least in the curiously bipolar version Douglas C. Wager has imagined. And if character motivations aren’t the only things that get twisted a bit in the Shakespeare Theatre’s production, Wager’s fresh-faced cast and Zack Brown’s sunny design are so darn pert that it’s hard to complain.
A Godfather parody painted in seaside pastels, the show opens with a swing dance at a pizza parlor in the Mafia stronghold of Verona Beach, N.J., circa 12 o’clock rock. It’s a going-away party for our hail-fellow hero, Valentine (Gregory Wooddell), a dreamy blond in pale linen who’s clearly accustomed to being the center of everyone’s attention. Certainly, his slighter, darker buddy Proteus (Paul Whitthorne), a more introspectively romantic sort, is acutely aware of the light that’ll go out of his life when Valentine sails for a summer of adventure in the swank precincts of Milan.
But Proteus seems equally captivated by Julia (Julia Dion), the pretty proprietress of the salon across the square, and when circumstances send him off to Europe on Valentine’s heels, both script and staging suggest that he’s genuinely torn. And his affections find yet another focus once he arrives in Milan, where a don with a fetching daughter and more than a little Corleone in his blood holds sway. The only constant is the uneasy intensity of his fixationsif Shakespeare makes Proteus a courtly lover, his personality shifts inspired by some pure romantic force, then Wager and Whitthorne make him a vaguely creepy one, driven by darker obsessions.
The play’s convoluted plot trades, in part, on old notions about social mobility, and there’s no denying that this production’s Proteus is a man drawn to things above his station: It’s his dad who runs that pizza parlor in the opening scenes (don’t think David Sabin doesn’t milk the role for every Joisey-inflected laugh), and the difference in rank between Dion’s hair-burning Jersey princess and Anne Louise Zachry’s chic Milanese socialite, Silvia, surely has something to do with how rapidly Proteus rationalizes away the heated promises he made to the one and sets his heart on the other. (The really twisted thing about this scene, though, is that the impossibly elegant passage in which he does so plays a neat semantic counterpoint, with riffs on “leave” and “love” and “lose,” to the one in which he apotheosizes Julia just after Valentine’s departure.)
In part to help make sense of a notoriously problematic ending, and in part to supply Proteus with a more layered set of motivations, the production taps that class-envy vibe to draw some fairly explicit parallels to The Talented Mr. RipleyI confess I’d picked up on them only vaguely until the Washington Post critic’s comment about them sent me off to read Wager’s directorial notethat underscore the longing in Proteus’ nature and point up the contrasts between his poor-boy character and the superbly glamorous Silvia. But the gimmick works only to a pointand Wager’s tendency to overplay his comic hand cuts pretty hard against it.
There is, naturally, the famous “bit with a dog”Crab, played rather benignly by an Australian sheepdog named Sydneyand a series of brilliantly written scenes for doltish Launce and clever Speed, the two servants who serve as reverse mirrors of their masters’ personalities. (That’s right: Valentine may be handsome, but he’s not the brightest bulb in Verona’s box.) Donald Corren tosses off Speed’s acerbic quips with obvious relish and admirable dispatch, but Floyd King lingers a bit too long over Launce’s idiociesthough perhaps it’s the pointless physical business that gets so thoroughly under the fingernails in the scene the two clowns share.
But then, Wager punches up the laughs throughout, transforming courtiers into posturing Mafiosi at every opportunity and dispatching a game Emery Battis to gather laughs with a crusty manner and an unfortunate old-guy-at-the-beach ensemble. He’s imagined Anthony Long’s Turio as a rouged, flat-bottomed fop whose toupee comes complete with an errant forelock, but at least the script supports that. There’s less license on the page for the musical slapstick Wager gives to the trio of brigands who appear out of nowhere in Act 4, but their status as mere plot devices doesn’t stop the threesome from capering madly in their black leathers (there’s even a momentary salute to Charlie’s Angels) and doing silly things with their big, shiny guns. To say that these combined comic devices dilute the moody effect of Wager’s Ripley conceit doesn’t quite do justice to the sheer frenetic excess of the production’s humor.
Still, if Wager sometimes seems to be tossing up comic notions wholesale, wondering what will stick, there’s enough genius among what adheres to make the production a delight overall. Naomi Jacobson is a red-haired, red-heeled bundle of brass as Julia’s saucy servant Lucetta; Ralph Cosham drolly underplays the don, letting the actors around him generate the laughs with their reactions to the vaguely Brandoish picture he presents with that pencil-thin mustache and the silver at his temples; Wooddell spices certain of Valentine’s romantic raptures with a pair of coarse gestures so fleeting and subtle as to scandalize only the first few rows; and Zachry, whose Silvia inspires the play’s most lyrical love poetry, is a bubble-headed bottle blonde with a heart of gold and a hardheaded aversion to letting her makeup get mussed.
Brown’s set is a ’50s dream, a buttery-warm expression of the boundless optimism in the shiny faces of the era’s advertising iconsand a fine vehicle for what looks like a savvy product-placement deal between the Shakespeare Theatre and the good folk at Pepsi. His costumes are likewise winning: Patrons of both sexes will covet Silvia’s white piqué swim frockand who’d have guessed Hush Puppies came in that lime-sherbet shade?
And despite the unfocused feel of some of the comic bits, Wager’s snappy pacing keeps the action popping even when Shakespeare stops to play to the groundlingswhich happens once or twice too often in the last third of this, one of his earliest plays. If the production’s uncertain mix of slapstick and psychodrama doesn’t completely sort out the unlikely emotional mess these two gents get themselves into, its energy and momentum should help keep audiences from fretting too much about the loose ends. CP