Shakespeare could certainly get silly in his comedies, what with all the disguises, gender bending, wild coincidences and fanciful bursts of love at first sight he loved throwing in. But even in his early romp “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” considered to be his first play and (and what some people call his “test kitchen”), the Bard knew how far to push credulity.
Take Sylvia, a noblewoman irked that her father just banned her boyfriend from town. When it turns out the boyfriend’s best friend is the one behind the banning — he rats out his friend’s randy intentions to the dad — and then decides he wants Sylvia romantically for himself, she could react in one of two ways. She could say, “Oh well, it’ll be easy to move on. I’ll just go for this new cute young guy.”
Or she could be royally ticked.
She chooses the second option. And Shakespeare redeems himself by maneuvering into a range of real human emotion rather than just churning out cardboard characters.
In its chipper “Gentlemen,” Woodward Shakespeare Festival offers a breezy, nicely crafted production that can make a hot summer night feel a little cooler.
If brevity is one of your yardsticks for a night out in the park, this one should make you happy, clocking in at just about 90 minutes with intermission.
Director Lisa Taber and her cast take awhile to get the comic juices flowing, but the post-intermission laughs are plentiful. And if brevity is one of your yardsticks for a night out in the park, this one should make you happy, clocking in at just about 90 minutes with intermission.
Joshua Taber, who plays Proteus, and Broderic Beard, who plays Valentine, have a good chemistry as two young friends mooning over a couple of gals. Proteus is in love with Julia (Tania Tran), while Valentine, who has moved to Milan to seek his fortune, falls for Silvia (Kayla M. Weber), the daughter of the local Duke. When Proteus makes the trip to Milan, he meets Silvia and promptly wants her for his own.
Joshua Taber has a good handle on Proteus even when his character moves into major jerk territory. (The silliest part of the narrative is how sweetly Valentine behaves toward his friend even when Proteus certainly doesn’t deserve it.) At times Taber is a little too nuanced in terms of physicality and vocals for such a big outdoor space, but when he projects, he’s a strong performer.
Beard has a gentle stage presence and offers some boisterously good moments. Director Lisa Taber makes physical comedy a priority, and Beard brings a boyish flourish to the blocking. (At one point he leaps backwards, rear-end first, up into a sitting position on a wall.) He and Heather Gibeson, who plays Speed, his servant, both make the show fun to watch.
Tran has a tendency to be a little rushed in her delivery, but she makes a charming Julia. Weber is a standout as the slightly acerbic, no-nonsense Silvia, who informs Proteus that, no, she is not interested in his amorous advances.
The production’s design is livened by Celeste Johnston’s spiffy costumes, Caitlyn Dick’s lights, Joshua Taber’s snippets of sound, and especially Weber’s sock-hop-nostalgia set.
Throughout, there’s more ease and confidence than we encounter at some Woodward Shakespeare productions. While I can’t hold up “Two Gentlemen” as anything more than a mildly amusing early Shakespeare lark, it’s smooth and fun. And a nice way to experience a gorgeous summer sunset.
Later this summer Woodward Shakespeare will stage “The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (abridged),” from Aug. 27 – Sept. 19.
‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’
- 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Aug. 15.
- Festival Stage, Woodward Park.
- www.woodwardshakespeare.org, (559) 927-3485.
- Free, but $10 reserved seats available; park's car entrance fee applies