Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Actors' Shakespeare Project tarts up one of Shakespeare's least polished projects and makes it shine with high (and low) humor.
Though "Two Gentleman of Verona" gets something of a bad rap -- an early work, it's a little jagged, a little disorganized and quite loose of limb -- it remains a play that bursts with comic possibility both in the text and the possibilities for its staging. ASP's own Robert Walsh, a longtime stalwart of the company, directs this rollicking production with full-on inventive energy, creating a show that crackles from start to finish.
Walsh's production benefits immensely from the presence of Bill Barclay, of late residing in London and working with the Globe Theatre. Barclay is back in town, and he takes on the central role of Proteus, a gentleman willing to throw over both his lady love and his best friend in order to win the heart of another.
Barclay doesn't just portray Proteus, a good man facing utter moral collapse for the sake of love; he owns the part, giving Proteus a conflicted conscience and making him sympathetic rather than contemptible.
The woman who has so captivated Proteus is Silvia (Miranda Craigwell), the daughter of a Milanese duke...or rather, duchess in this case (Marya Lowry). Silvia has fallen in love with Valentine (Jaime Carillo), one of the titular gentlemen of Verona, and he is equally smitten with her. The problem is Thurio (Michael Patrick Kane), a suitor to Silvia who is favored by her mother the duchess.
When Proteus takes his leave of Verona and his lady love Julia (Paige Clark), in order to pay Valentine a visit, the sight of Silvia fills him with longing. Proteus knows he's sliding into bad-boy territory at the very least, and maybe full-on villainy, but he can't stop himself. He wants Silvia, and nothing's going to get in his way.
It's the way of these things, of course, that Silvia has absolutely no interest in Proteus. Further complicating matters is Julia's idea to disguise herself as a young man and hire on with Proteus as a servant. This gives her an all too clear view of her man's bad behavior.
This comic setup gains additional impetus from the japes of two servants, Launce (John Kuntz), who works for Proteus, and Speed (Thomas Derrah), who serves Valentine. Kuntz and Derrah are married in real life; as their characters spar, swapping witticisms, schemes and insults, comedic sparks fly. Each of the several couples portrayed here has a palpable chemistry, but this same-sex duo steals the show.
Sparks aren't all that fly: So do shreds of paper. This production finds half a dozen occasions, if not more, for its players to tear up love letters and other documents and scatter the fragments. It becomes a kind of running joke, almost a framework from which to hang all sorts of fast-paced visual gags and recurring comic tropes.
This play famously includes a canine character, Launce's dog Crab; the pooch in this production has an unerring sense of comic timing, as indeed does every member of the cast. Just be warned, should you dine before the show, not to take your doggie bags into the theater with you.
Barclay serves as music director and composer as well as starring in the show; as is always the case when he tends to the music of an ASP production, the songs provide merry accompaniment. Barclay plays a number of instruments on stage over the course of the play, but the principle musician here is Max Kennedy (who also composes music for the show). Kennedy plays both acoustic and electric guitar, and the company find various inventive ways to fold him into the onstage action.
ASP has done more than update "Two Gentlemen of Verona" with props like rolling suitcases and iPhones. They have given it a dose of comic juice that makes its hair stand on end.
"Two Gentlemen of Verona" runs through Jan. 6 at the Davis Square Theatre, l255 Elm Street in Davis Square, Somerville. Tickets cost $33 - $50 and can be obtained online at actorsshakespeareproject.org or via phone at 866-811-4111.
Performance schedule: Thursday and Friday evenings at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Post-show discussions take place after Sunday performances.