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— By the end of Shakespeare's romance The Two Gentlemen of Verona, you wonder when the title characters will show up. Valentine and Proteus begin as best friends: inseparable -- until separated. In one of the Bard's least credible conclusions, they remain that way. But in between the title's only half-correct. Valentine and Proteus hail from Verona, true. But they, especially Proteus, as scattered as his name implies, are far from "gentle" men.

When Valentine seeks his fortune in Milan, Proteus, in love with Julia, stays home. "He after honor hunts," says Proteus, "I after love." Then Proteus goes to Milan. What follows resembles A Midsummer Night's Dream, but in reverse: instead of Puck-inspired confusions in a forest, when the country boys hit the big city, they metamorphose like characters in Ovid. Their friendship turns to rivalry, then hatred.

Proteus dumps Julia and falls for Sylvia, the Duke's daughter, on whom Valentine dotes. Valentine's exiled and becomes the Robin Hood of Mantua's nearby forest. Proteus terrorizes Sylvia. Torn between love and loyalty, Valentine must avenge Sylvia and slay his erstwhile best friend.

Valentine and Proteus are as new unto the world as Shakespeare was to writing plays. Two Gents probably wasn't his first, but it's among his earliest efforts. When he came to Valentine's dilemma, Shakespeare painted himself into a corner. But the genre, at least for Renaissance audiences, saved him. Romances abandoned the rules. Readers and playgoers expected the unlikely, be it stark coincidences or emotional leaps. People could change and change back. They could forget, even monstrous offenses like Proteus's, and forgive.

Young Shakespeare was lucky to have romances available. He could hone his craft before moving to genres demanding more rigorous emotional truth. He would return to the romance, in his later years, and resolve an even greater dilemma in A Winter's Tale.

For a director, staging Two Gents is a good news/bad news deal: you get to do the Bard, but it's Two Gents. At the Old Globe's outdoor stage, Matt August looks as if he's burned for the assignment. He countrifies Verona, where cows moo, even in town, and makes the four young leads like middle-school innocents: Proteus and Julia aren't in love; they're omagod-headoverheels! Everything in their innocent, most likely virginal lives promises to remain unconditional forever.

Our first glimpse of Milan takes us through the looking glass into a lascivious Wonderland. Suddenly we're in decadent Restoration England. Fabio Toblini's red, electric aqua and sunbright yellow costumes are so bold you can almost hear them. As the Danes do for Hamlet's stepfather, sycophants -- one with a lampshade for a hat, another with hookah-tubes stemming from his waist -- applaud the white-wigged, white-powder-faced Duke's every move, even when he vomits into a silver spittoon. Partially dressed women cavort like nymphs du pave. It's The Rocky Horror Show, 400 years ago, minus only Riff Raff. Glaring inconsistencies, you say? Sure. But, Shakespeare and August may reply, it's a romance: expect the unexpected.

And notice: the Milan we see could be real. Or it could be how a city seems to fresh country eyes. It may even be how London looked to a young Bard newly arrived from the Stratford-Upon-Avon boonies.

In this strange new world, the behavior of the innocents makes a bit more sense, if you don't look too closely. You will wonder how Stephanie Fieger's appropriately adamant Sylvia, even if locked in a tower, could have stayed so unlike her surroundings. And how Tom Hammond's well-spoken, Mick Jagger-agile Duke, shrinks in the final scene -- almost evaporates, in fact -- giving way to young Valentine's (likable Ryan Quinn) instant, dimly motivated emergence as the play's moral voice.

Even as a romance, Two Gents has gaps you could drive a truck through. Surely Joy-Farmer Clary's sparkling, giddy-for-love Julia would regard Proteus, in the end, with a discerning eye -- all the more, since Corey Sorenson makes Proteus's flip, from ardent innocent to "perjured, false disloyal man," so convincing.

In such a fickle world, only the clowns (and Celeste Ciulla's earthy Lucetta) are constant. Sam Breslin-Wright comically sprints through Speed's lines as if late for an important date. Jonathan McMurtry has a good news/bad news assignment: he gets to play old Launce, one of Shakespeare's most lovable clowns, but must share the spotlight with Crab the Dog. McMurtry does memorable work, especially with Launce's confession that he loves a toothless milkmaid, and adds an unforgettable touch. He's onstage with Jackson, a dog so adept at playing front you'd swear he's stealing scenes. McMurtry holds the leash. At times he leads. At others, he makes it look as if the theatrically savvy pooch has him in tow.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare

Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park

Directed by Matt August; cast: Ryan Quinn, Corey Sorenson, Sam Breslin Wright, Joy Farmer-Clary, Celeste Ciulla, Eric Hoffmann, Charles Janasz, Jonathan McMurtry, Tom Hammond, Michael Kirby, Stephanie Fieger, Kate Turnbull, Jackson (the dog); scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Fabio Toblini; lighting, York Kennedy; sound design and original music, Christopher Walker

Playing through September 30. Note: Two Gentlemen runs in repertory with Hamlet and Measure for Measure; for days and times call 619-234-5623.

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