Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two Gentlemen of Verona, Great Lakes Theater Festival

While love and friendship are two very desirable conditions, when they conflict with each other the participants can get seriously bent out of shape. That’s what happens to the four principals in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, now at the Great Lakes Theater Festival.

This early play by Shakespeare is a fairly slight affair, as young Will was still trying out the dramatic techniques he would use later in his career with such skill. Therefore, either the staging or the performances have to fill some gaps to make this play soar. And even though this GLTF production has some pleasant moments, it never really catches fire.

The two gents in question, Valentine and Proteus, fall in love with Silvia, with Proteus leaving his former gal Julia in the lurch. But Julia decides to disguise herself as a page and is assigned by Proteus to woo Silvia on his behalf. Of course, there are more complications intertwined until the happy and strangely abrupt conclusion.

Lacking much of the dense beauty found in other Shakespeare plays, this piece begs for imaginative staging or actors who can bring something extra to their roles.

Initially, it seems that director Charles Fee is on the right track with a clean and modernistic set designed by Russell Metheny. Plus, Fee utilizes two singers and a small combo to introduce scenes with snatches of indie music, such as the haunting tunes of Nick Drake, the moody “bleak” rocker circa 1970.

As it turns out, however, that faint window dressing can’t make up for a staging that feels flat and perfunctory. Fee approaches the material as if it requires deep respect, not as a loose and spirited comic romp. Although Fee has been chided in the past for taking too many liberties, here he errs in the opposite direction.

The situation isn’t helped by individual performances that range from bland to capable. Neil Brookshire is a handsome cipher as Valentine and Paul Hurley neatly skates around many opportunities to turn Proteus into something more than a pain-in-the-butt grind.

As Silvia, Nica Ericson exudes a dark and threatening sexuality but never builds that into anything interesting. Only Lee Stark as Julia, among the four leads, ever generates any sparks, especially in her cross-dressed moments when she interacts with Silvia..

Reliably, David Anthony Smith comes riding to the rescue as Proteus’ servant Launce. His scenes with his faithful mutt Crab are funny and endearing, perhaps even more so in this arid landscape. And Sara M. Bruner, Jodi Dominick and Robert Williams add some fun as the second act outlaws.

Overall, however, these Two Gentlemen are much too mannerly to make this play crackle with anything approaching comedy delight.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Through April 23, produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival at PlayhouseSquare, the Hanna Theatre, 2067 East 14th Street, 216-241-6000

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