As full of sickly sweet fluff as cotton candy and as vapid as the cashier at Boardwalk Fries, The Shakespeare Theatre’s current production of Two Gentlemen of Verona is about as serious as a summertime romp on the New Jersey shore beach that it’s partially set on. But it’s not quite as stimulating. It’s summer lovin’ all right, but it feels more like a tawdry one-night stand than a magical three-month romance.
The ordinarily sophisticated director Douglas Wager, a transplant to the Shakespeare Theatre from Arena Stage, has taken his crew of actors and designers and contrived to assemble the single largest collection of cheap laughs this side of Defending the Caveman. The problem is that this Two Gents doesn’t even seem to aspire to be intelligent?it simply and unashamedly caters to the lowest common denominator and occasionally even tries to one-down that. The penny-paying groundlings of the Elizabethan era may have liked the dog tricks, but they don’t work so hot on $45-ticket holders.
Caricature seems to be the order of the day as far as these poor players strutting and fretting their hours away upon the stage are concerned. Who needs a character with motives and emotions when you’ve got slapstick and innuendo? Or, better yet, a Vespa? And almost no one?not even the tried-and-true members of the Shakespeare’s company?is spared from the fall into the pit of painfully prosaic comic ploys.
Floyd King’s Launce and Julia Dion’s Julia are perhaps the only characters to retain a shred of dignity in this abyss of stupid-pet tricks and sugar-coated comedy. King has a nice comedic cadence, a talent he’s refined over the years, and plays nicely off the canine he’s been paired with. Dion’s performance as Julia is slightly less solid than King’s, but she comes out of it virtually unscathed, which is more than can be said for most of the cast (we’ll ignore the fact that Shakespeare didn’t do her any favors in the dignity department).
Gregory Wooddell doesn’t give poor Valentine a chance. Smothered under a layer of caricature so thick he’s bound to suffocate, there is an actual character, but Wooddell just can’t seem to uncover it. The other gentleman of Verona, who turns out to be rather deficient in his gentlemanliness, is Proteus. Played by Paul Whitthorne, he is perhaps the most problematic character in Two Gents, and Whitthorne makes a valiant, but ultimately futile, attempt to rescue him.
The technical aspects of Two Gents are fairly standard issue for the Shakespeare Theatre. Raucous lighting and fanciful, rotating set pieces contribute to the circus-like atmosphere of the production. Zack Brown, the set and costume designer, revels in the sheer absurdity of it all, indulging in chaotic color schemes usually reserved for cartoonists. But even the unilateral technical and artistic dive into ostentation can’t save Two Gents from drowning.
Gimmicks are foregrounded (even when they’re in the background) and make for a whirlwind spin through Two Gents that is as disorienting as the swiveling of the set pieces at each scene change. The bocce tournament going on behind the Duke of Milan is infinitely more exciting than his plotting with Proteus to broach the budding romance between Silvia and Valentine. Likewise, the photo shoot featuring the glamorous Silvia vamping on a Vespa stole so much of the focus from the scene that was taking place in front of it that the Duke’s discourse was largely lost.
Wager claims that his interpretation of Two Gents is “The Talented Mr. Ripley meets Roman Holiday by way of The Sopranos.” Alas, if it could be even half that good, it would be worth three hours traffic upon the Shakespeare Theatre’s stage. But this Two Gents is more of an amalgamation of the latest Mary Higgins Clark book with Weekend at Bernie’s by way of The Nanny, and it’s got plenty of bad accents to boot.