Saturday, June 25, 2011

Love, and a Bit With a Dog

by James E. Trainor III

The 1998 film Shakespeare in Love has a bit of fun at Two Gentlemen of Verona's expense. Shakespeare, trying desperately to capture the essence of true love onstage, cringes as his audience pays more attention to the dog Crab than to his love story. Henslowe, ever the practical showman, is encouraging:

"You see? Comedy. Love, and a bit with a dog. That's what they want."

Such is the play's reputation in modern pop culture. Perhaps for this reason it is not often performed; the text is one of Shakespeare's earliest and presents a number of challenges. When done with passion by skilled professional actors, however, the piece proves to be more than just fluff.

The text has some problems that are difficult for a company to grapple with. Shakespeare was still cutting his teeth, and the structure is not as clean as some of his later works. Some characters make sudden shifts with no clear motivation. Others stand awkwardly silent onstage for long exchanges of witty banter between the principles. The servant Launce and his dog Crab, so beloved of audiences, seem shoehorned into the plot at the last minute. Fortunately, with some excellent acting and some pragmatic staging, Riverside's production deals well with these challenges.

Cristina Panfilio is Julia, who is engaged to Proteus. Proteus soon finds himself in love with Valentine's fiancee, however, and Julia must fly to his side in disguise. As with her later counterparts Rosalind and Viola, this is a fun device that spurs on many comic moments. Unlike them, however, Julia is not necessarily easy to like. The trouble is, as written, she's a little pathetic. She's head-over-heels in love with Proteus, who, based on his actions during the play, does not deserve her attention. The minute he gets to Milan he throws himself at Sylvia, disowning his friend and burning every bridge he can just to get a shot at a woman who can't stand the sight of him. He even goes so far as to give "Sebastian" (really Julia in disguise) Julia's ring to give to Sylvia! It's a wonder she doesn't throw the ring back at him and head back to Verona to find a slightly more reliable partner.

The play is about constancy, though, and Julia will not back down in her pursuit of her true love, no matter how ridiculous he becomes. Panfilio plays this note with characteristic charm and pointed passion. The result is a Julia that is very silly and excitable (she is so giddy over Proteus at the beginning that she can hardly receive his letter with composure), yet courageous and constant when occasion demands.

Proteus, played here with inexhaustible energy by Zachary Andrews, is as committed to his inconstancy as Julia is to her constancy. His very name suggests he is ever-changing. He is structurally the protagonist of the piece, but his behavior is so dishonest and outrageous that it's hard to like him. We long to see him get his comeuppance but he never, strictly speaking, does. He goes as far as to attempt to rape Sylvia, and when Valentine stops him, offers a brief five-line apology and is instantly forgiven.

It's hard to go along with Proteus' journey under these circumstances, but of course some of this must be forgiven as the growing pains of the young playwright. The rape scene is a step too far for a romantic comedy, and though Ron Clark's direction allows a long and comic fight scene to take the edge off, the conclusion of the play is still a bit awkward. Nevertheless, Proteus's descent into reckless abandon is entertaining to watch, and Andrews is very engaging as he drives the action relentless onward.

Valentine is played by Christopher Peltier, who is a very solid and grounded comic actor. He keeps pace with his clever servant Speed (Peter Eli Johnson) and is lovable in a farcical scene with the Duke (Jim Van Valen). Valentine, though he does go a bit over the top in his love for Sylvia, is much more likable than Proteus, and Peltier's consistent scene work is a joy to watch.

Kelly Rebecca Gibson plays Sylvia. Though she turns it around by the end, she seems a bit uneven in her first scene. With Proteus, she is oversexed in a manner that doesn't seem as natural coming from her as from some of the more comic roles. She doesn't quite seem as experienced as the other three leads, but she redeems it by playing the final scenes with creativity and honest intensity. Sylvia is a difficult role to play, of course, partly because Shakespeare doesn't give her enough stage time with Valentine to make the relationship believable. She is mainly notable in her moral character, her willingness to listen to Proteus and refuse him again and again.

The production has some fairly significant pacing issues, and again, it's hard to tell whether this is the text or the direction. One directorial choice that was unnecessary was the use of signs to explain the location to the audience. This isn't really needed in Shakespeare, especially in such a versatile space as the Festival Stage; a different bench for Julia's house and the Duke's palace will suffice. The signs were sometimes funny, but more often than not just slowed things down.

Another problem altogether is Launce. Launce, as noted, doesn't seem to fit into the plot very well. His interpretation by Patrick DuLaney is extremely successful in its own right, but the long monologues and bits of stage business with the dog Crab (played by noted "Pit Bull Ambassador" Big Red) stick out like a sore thumb in most cases. The farce is turned up to eleven, and suddenly we stop the plot for a bit of stand-up. DuLaney is quite good in the more active scenes, however, and the dialogue with Speed is quite funny (though the patter could be a bit snappier).

The clowns in the piece turn out to be an intriguing thematic aspect. Julia's servant Lucetta (Jody Hovland) and Valentine's servant Speed ridicule and criticize their social betters quite freely. They are much more grounded than their masters, and it is clear that they are needed for the nobles' self-awareness. They do not need to repress their passions and thus are in better control of them. Launce, despite his bumbling animal nature, is shown quite clearly to be Proteus's moral superior when he explains how often he himself has taken the punishment for his dog's misdeeds. "How many masters would do this for his servant?" (To punctuate the point, in case we missed it, Proteus arrives shortly and beats Launce.)

The bandits in the forest (played by a great ensemble consisting of Chad Bay, Samuel Alexander Hawkins, Jody Hovland, Zoe Sigman, and Alex Shockley) are entertaining and engaging, though the fight scenes seem to drag on a bit long. There is an interesting device here that echoes the interchange of social class elsewhere in the play: these bandits are actually gentlemen who, exiled for crimes, resorted to crime. Far from frightening, they're actually lovable and friendly. All these noble savages need is the Duke's pardon to make them gentlemen again.

It is in the forest that Valentine, appointed ruler of these bandits, is able to come back to himself and learn to love a little less ridiculously. The theme is a bit underdeveloped, but it is clear that Shakespeare is exploring the type of duality that will fascinate him in later works.

Many of the incidents and rhetorical devices used in The Two Gentlemen of Verona will appear transformed but still recognizable in later plays. When Helena encourages Demetrius to treat her like a dog in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, she is echoing Proteus's plea to Sylvia. When Romeo complains that banishment is really a type of death in Romeo and Juliet, he is essentially repeating Valentine's complaint. Though the results tend to be clumsy, Two Gentlemen is a clear example of Shakespeare's mastery of the form gaining momentum.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona runs through July 10th in repertory with Ah, Wilderness! at the Riverside Festival Stage in Lower City Park in Iowa City. Tickets can be purchased by calling Riverside's box office at 319.338.7672. More information here.

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