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The Two Gentlemen of Verona

American Players Theatre, 2013

Aaron R. Conklin – Madison Magazine

One modern author called it a war. Carol Burnett called it a walking pimple. And nearly every author, wit and psychologist who discusses it agrees that adolescence is basically a living, breathing hell.

William Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona approaches this touchy subject that touches us all from a uniquely meta perspective: Not only does it center on a group of young people struggling to find their way, but as one of the Bard’s earliest plays, it’s a prime example of Shakespeare’s own artistic adolescence. American Players Theatre’s production (currently in repertory through October 6) tackles this pimpled comedy with a humor, grace and awareness that elevates it above the mere comic trifle most of us typically take it for.

The two gents of the play’s title find themselves, as so many in their late teens, taking unsure steps to discover their identities and future life paths. Proteus (Marcus Truschinski) is twisted in the throes of first love, while his best pal Valentine (Travis A. Knight), in cocksure defiance of his name, has no time for such nonsense—he’s off to seek his fortune at the court of the Duke of Milan (James Pickering). Meanwhile, Julia (Susan Shunk), the object of Proteus’s wild affections, isn’t sure whether she should say yes or no to her passionate suitor.

By the time she decides to fall, Proteus has been dispatched to also seek his future in Milan. But before he can even unpack his bags, he’s laid eyes on the Duke’s daughter Silvia (Abbey Siegworth), fallen head over heels and cast Julia aside like yesterday’s gordita crunch. And the fact that Valentine’s fallen for Silvia, and she shares his affections? Just another obstacle to be removed—friendship, decency and human logic be damned.

Two Gents is like that at points—illogical and filled with whiplash emotions, just like your moody teenaged niece pushing her food around her plate at the Thanksgiving table. It falls to Truschinski to play the most difficult of the changes. He’s known for playing good (or at least good-natured) guys, not villains, but here, he shows a keen knack for the subtler touches of villainy. No broad strokes, brays and cackles—his performance is all about devious smirks, raised eyebrows and glances askance. He’s an impulsive rake who doesn’t blink at tossing his best pal under the banishment bus, ditching a once-true love or pursuing a completely hopeless romance with a royal daughter who’s painfully aware of the depths of his caddishness.

The relationships twixt the four teens form the play’s framework, but the admirable comic touches lie elsewhere, like the blowsy pomposity of Ricco Fajardo’s Thurio, Silvia’s officially sanctioned and oily suitor. As Proteus’s put-upon servant Launce, Steve Haggard swipes the show with the skill of an A-list stand-up comedian. He even manages to upstage the play’s signature dog, played with patient canine aplomb by an eleven-year-old German shepherd named Tim. (Say it with us—awww.) Not only does Haggard nail the play’s one-liners and physical comedy, but he’s also an expert at playing to the crowd. His shared scenes with Speed (Will Mobley), Valentine’s silver-tongued servant, are one of several gut-busting highlights.

Two Gents sports plenty of the touches of genius that would gild Shakespeare’s later work—a woman disguising herself as a man, the dollops of clever wordplay, servants serving up healthy scoops of comedy, the forest as a setting for discovery and change. In fact, it’s not hard to argue that Two Gents is the rough draft of the Bard’s much more sure-footed Twelfth Night—with a sizable emphasis on the “rough.” Whether we’re talking about the play’s abrupt dive into intermission or the head-slapping way in which Valentine abruptly becomes an outlaw king after he’s banished, a little extra patience is required.

Give director Tim Ocel, a man who’s always championed the import of the play, major credit for recognizing the perils and navigating them with skill, especially when the proceedings take an even more abrupt turn for the darker at the play’s climax. At least two of the main characters make their horror and unease at the play’s clumsy attempt at a tidy ending painfully plain. And honestly, who can blame them? Alexander Pope may have suggested that to forgive is divine, but here, it feels patently ridiculous, and it’s nice to see that acknowledged onstage, even as we’re urged to overcome our reluctance and accept it.

Eventually, Shakespeare would master the vagaries and pitfalls of gracefully getting to all’s well that ends well, but in the forests between Verona and Milan, it’s clear, just like a fourteen-year-old navigating the landmines of middle school, he was still wrestling with it. APT’s production gets that, and is all the better for it.

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