Might have felt like a good news/bad news situation. Renowned director Mark Lamos gets to do Shakespeare at the Old Globe. The bad news? It’s “Two Gents.”
The Two Gentlemen of Verona was a popular Elizabethan comedy. It’s not a bad, or badly written, play. Quite the contrary. Well-paced scenes move forward logically. The author handles complications smartly, and the language has occasional flashes. The script demonstrates a practiced hand able to hit the requisite markers. The author knows he’ll pass the Journeyman’s Qualifier — Two Gents reads that way — but must be bored to tears.
Everything’s in its place, if you don’t count that bizarre exchange toward the end. Valentine finally wins his beloved Silvia. Then he offers her to his perjuring ex-friend, Proteus, who just tried to rape her. It’s as if the writer, hobbled by lockstep conventions, decided to up the stakes — and test himself.
In his exam as a Starfleet cadet, James T. Kirk faced a lose-lose situation, the “Kobayashi Maru.” So he changed the terms. He rewrote the question and escaped. The author of Two Gents does the opposite: he devises an impossibly entangled Kobayashi Maru to show he can resolve it.
Valentine makes the offer. Poor Julia, in love with Proteus, sprawls on the floor; stunned Silvia’s set to blast off; Proteus spins giddily; and Valentine seems more eager to forgive a friend than embrace the apple of his eye. Can the playwright unscramble things in, say, five minutes’ stage time?
Depends on the director. Most sweep it aside or edit it out. They hit the happily-ever-after notes and conclude with a dance that absolves everyone. At the Globe, Lamos honors the about-face. For once, the young characters do an adult thing: they pause and reflect, as if weighing alternatives. In the interim, the conventions of comedy return, happy notes plink, and the cast does a formal jig. All ends well. But for one brief, unsettling moment, the tale could have flipped. Remember: Shakespeare also set Romeo and Juliet in “fair Verona.”
Given how he treats that tricky moment, I wish the director had more to work with. This is a dressed-up, eye-appealing show. Designer Linda Cho adds rinses of color, and sometimes glitz, to her richly fabric’d period costumes. In the Renaissance, you were what you wore, even if it meant spending half your fortune to make the point. Mark Pinter’s Duke of Milan, for example: an almost sordid galaxy of golden flecks sparkles on his vest. Proteus and Valentine (Adam Kantor and Hubert Point-Du Jour) wear modest, Veronese red. Decked in a snow-white extravaganza — lined bodice top, flared, floor-length skirt — Silvia (Britney Coleman) looks like a human wedding cake. Even the dog, Crab (Khloe Jezbera, a black Lab, steals scenes by trying to appear interested), sports a white Renaissance ruff.
On John Arnone’s imaginative set, the spires and squared towers of Italian cities float above the stage, as if on a cloud. The vertical placement makes an ongoing commentary: as above, in a kind of pristine, idealized Italy, not so below, where un-gentle men and eternal vows fall far short of model behavior. Even the trees are two-faced: pruned in Verona, when spun they become a shaggy Sherwood-like forest.
Hindsight gives the plot a déjà vu quality. Valentine and Proteus are best friends. Since “homekeeping youth have ever homely wits,” Valentine prefers to see the “wonders of the world abroad.” Proteus, in love with Julia, will stay in Verona: “He after honor hunts, I after love.” That neat summation’s just asking for trouble. Soon both men vie for Silvia, while Julia, in male disguise, gets dumped. The odd-lover-out pattern recalls A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, Two Gents rings so familiar because it’s practically a template for most of Shakespeare’s comedies. Been there, seen that, even if you haven’t seen Two Gents.
Cut to 95 minutes with no intermission, the piece moves, but often what’s more interesting are the movements between the scenes. Credited to Jeff Michael Rebudal, they include a training camp for courtiers, ceremonial entrances, pageantry, graceful scurrying about, the high-stepping, all-cast finale. A persistent drawback: when a scene begins and the living tapestry pulls away, the stage seems to shrink.
The principals, especially Kristin Villanueva’s Julia, revel in the soaring highs and precipitous lows of youth, which Fritz Patton’s original music nicely underscores. Kudos to Lowell Byers’s inept Turio and Adam Gerber’s ornate Sir Eglamour (a yin and yang of aspiring courtiers). Richard Ruiz’s clear-spoken Launce gets laughs in spite of having to work with the funniest straight-man in recent memory: Crab the dog.
Although the Globe gives it a lavish mounting, Two Gents is Bard Lite. The Emperor isn’t naked, per se, but without all the fluid movements and visual padding, he just might catch a cold.
Directed by Mark Lamos; cast: Adam Kantor, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Kristin Villanueva, Britney Coleman, Richard Ruiz, Arthur Hanket, Mark Pinter, Lowell Byers, Adam Gerber, Lindsay Brill, Rusty Ross, Erin Elizabeth Adams, Kushtrim Hoxha, Tyler Kent, Khloe Jezbera; scenic design, John Arnone; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Stephen Strawbridge; sound, Acme Sound Patterns