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The Two Gentlemen of Verona                  Shakespeare Santa Cruz, 1999

Lisa Jensen - Good Times Santa Cruz

Considered one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays, the romantic comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona gets a production worthy of a classic as the final offering in this year’s Shakespeare Santa Cruz season.  Credit Tim Ocel, fast becoming one of the festival’s most reliable directors, who demonstrated his understanding of how Shakespearean comedy and romance work in his delightful past productions of Twelfth Night and As You Like It.

In the festival’s first attempt to stage Two Gents, Ocel circumvents the problematic plot with an engaging and spirited cast and a straightforward production that achieves its effects with inventive subtlety rather than frantic brio.  In the story, the two gentlemen are lifelong friends Valentine (Hans Altwies) and Proteus (Mike Ryan). Valentine is off to seek his fortune at the Duke of Milan's court, but Proteus stays behind to moon over his beloved, Julia (Jenni Kirk). …

But the less said about the plot, the better.  It was written just before Romeo and Juliet, but where Romeo begins as a roistering comedy that turns tragic, Two Gents tries to mine comedy out of heartless betrayals.  To make it work requires skillful playing, which is where this production excels.  One of he festival’s most endearing actors, Ryan plays Protein with a bewildered earnestness that may not make his actions sympathetic, but at least renders him less a villain than a victim of his own unstable romantic impulses.  Altwies makes Valentine a stalwart and vigorous romantic and comic hero. Peterson is sensational as Silvia, vivacious and playful in love, bold and tough-minded in adversity.  Kirk's Julia is a giddy romantic ingénue teasing her lusty servant, Lucetta (Amy Thone), who gains poise in dreadlocks and fake goatee when she goes to Milan to discover Proteus’ betrayal.  The poignant scene Kirk and Peterson play together is the dramatic high point.

For laughs, as usual, there are the servants.  Colman Domingo, who made such a vivid Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, is more relaxed and thoroughly entertaining as Valentine’s servant, Speed (got up in the rainbow motley of a bike messenger).  Domingo is a most generous comedic actor who earns his own laughs effortlessly while giving his onstage partners plenty of room and support.  But the highlight of the show is Gregg Coffin as Proteus’ grumbling servant, Launce.  A hilarious clown who gets the biggest laughs of the night out of a pantomime with his own shoes, Coffin also holds his own onstage with Launce's dog, Crab, played by a wonderfully deadpan pooch who steals his every scene by ignoring everything around him.  They’re the funniest comedy team of the season.

Composer Coffin also turns the famous “Who is Silvia?” song into a sly serenade with a hip-hop chorus in baggy pants and shades.  Other modernist touches include Thurio’s cellphone used for comic effect and a huge, racy billboard.  In Ocel’s clever, simplified staging, an outlaw band that surfaces in the second half overruns the stage between scenes, making off with all the props.  But it’s the fine cast who gives Two Gents its comic pizzazz.

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Hans Altwies

The Two Gentlemen of Verona


Geva Theatre Center


Photo: Ken Huth