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The Two Gentlemen of Verona

American Players Theatre, 2013

Mike Fischer – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

If one cuts through the nostalgic gauze surrounding late adolescence, most of us have scar tissue involving imperfectly healed memories of the friends we hurt and loves we lost while trying to figure out who we were and what we wanted.

While it’s often staged as a light-hearted romp featuring two early Shakespearean clowns and a show-stealing dog, Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona is all about these growing pains that are part of growing up.

In the new production of Two Gents on stage in American Players Theatre’s Up-the-Hill amphitheater, director Tim Ocel finds the play’s dark and dangerous side, while challenging us to take its characters seriously. The result is the smartest and most truthful of the four productions of Two Gents — including the 2003 staging by APT itself — I’ve now seen.

As the play begins, once-inseparable companions Proteus and Valentine are drifting apart; the swooning Proteus is now focused on Julia, while the adventurous Valentine leaves to seek his fortune in Milan. Once there, Valentine falls hard for Silvia, who is daughter to the Duke.

Both couples — Julia and Proteus as well as Silvia and Valentine — secretly become engaged.

Then things get messy.

Honoring his father’s wishes, Proteus also goes to Milan. Quickly forgetting Julia, Proteus falls for Silvia, gets Valentine exiled by revealing Valentine’s illicit love for Silvia, and then tries to rape Silvia after failing to seduce her. Putting friendship first, Valentine forgives Proteus — and then, without even asking Silvia, offers her to Proteus to seal the friends’ reconciliation.

It’s impossible to describe this game of musical chairs without making these characters sound ridiculous. But as Ocel and his cast demonstrate, all they really are is young and confused.

As the villain among this foursome, Marcus Truschinski plays Proteus as a dreamy but utterly sincere romantic. Inconstant and hurtful he may be. But we never doubt that he is trying to be true to himself. The prospect of betraying both his beloved and his best friend clearly weighs heavily on him, even as he convinces himself — and us — that for him there’s no other choice.

Ditto the decision of Travis A. Knight’s Valentine to offer his betrothed to Proteus. It’s an outrageous, stupid and yet utterly unavoidable gesture — at least when seen from the vantage point of an inexperienced adolescent, who must choose between his new-found heartthrob and lifelong soul mate.

That doesn’t mean all this male bonding sits well with the women, who consistently remind us of the price they inevitably pay so that the guys can keep hanging out together.

Susan Shunk’s earnest Julia — first of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines — sketches the startled delight of a woman falling in love before plaintively registering the pain that same woman feels after being abandoned.

Abbey Siegworth’s Silvia is a revelation. Ocel has envisioned her as the most strong-minded, principled and perceptive of the four lovers. That’s what Siegworth delivers, preparing us for a memorably staged final scene reminding us that even when those we hurt agree to move on, it doesn’t mean they’ll also agree to forget.

Before I myself move on, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention strong performances by Kelsey Brennan (Lucetta), Steve Haggard (Launce), Will Mobley (Speed) and a German shepherd named Tim (Crab the dog), each very funny in milking the script’s extensive stand-up comedy.

Making his APT debut, James Pickering proves anew that Shakespearean dukes are among his specialties. When he rages petulantly about his daughter’s willfulness, what comes to mind is King Lear berating Cordelia. APT is way overdue for another staging of Lear, and I can’t imagine a better choice for the lead role.

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