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The Two Gentlemen of Verona                  Shakespeare Santa Cruz, 1999

Steven Winn - San Francisco Chronicle

Men are dogs.  Oh sure, they can be loyal.  But they also travel in packs, jump a woman when they want her, slather and stink and slash a throat on instinct.  Nobody knew it like Shakespeare.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet, two of the playwright’s early plays in a rotating open-air repertory at the Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival, the glandular male impulses throb.  Black leather, the roar of motorcycle engines and a short history of obscene gestures fill the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen.

At the start of Tim Ocel’s vigorous California-look Two Gentlemen, by far the better of the two Shakespeare shows, a pretty boy Valentine (Hans Altwies) and lunk-head Proteus (Mike Ryan) bark out their farewells without a hint of the tenderness these fast friends feel for each other.  They communicate best by thudding their shoulders together like athletes after a score.

Ramsey Avery’s industrial steel-and-glass set design drives home the point.  The two gents loom, in sunglasses and stubble, on a giant billboard with a woman in a bathing suit emerging from the surf between them.  They're big and brash and, as Shakespeare’s text confirms, secretly unsure of who they are.

The plot’s abrupt swerves make a kind of blunt sense here.  When Proteus falls for Valentine’s beloved Silvia (Courtney Peterson), Ryan turns his character's guilt into craven, canine theatrics, with downcast eyes and one paw shuffling in the dirt.  Altwies is just as impulsive whenValentine forgives his sniveling friend.  These two live totally in the moment. Who thinks of the past when the present feels as eternal as a summer's day?

The women, of course.  In one of this production's telling small touches, a minor character—Amy Thone as the waitress/servant Lucetta—lets out a knowing sigh about the other sex to her mistress Julia (Jenni Kirk).  It’s a happy accident that Thone happens to be visibly pregnant.  Cradling her stomach and rolling her eyes, this Lucetta knows what messes men can leave behind.

Peterson gives a graceful, articulate performances as the object of both men's affections. Kirk lacks the spunk and vinegar of a humiliated lover who tracks her lover in male disguise.

The men, even the comic “low” characters, can’t stop preening and commandeering the show.  Silvia’s vain suitor Thurio (Dominic Comperatore) can’t stay off his cellphone.  Colman Domingo plays Valentine’s servant Speed as a smart-mouthed bike messenger in rainbow spandex, hustling the crowd for laughs.  Gregg Coffin does a borschtbelt stand-up routine, with a cigarette, his shoes and a live dog for props, as Proteus’ servant Launce.

The dog, Crab, played by a docilehusky-retriever mix named Harry, proves a perfect gentleman.  In Two Gentlemen, the men are the real beasts.

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Hans Altwies / Mike Ryan

The Two Gentlemen of Verona


Geva Theatre Center


Photo: Ken Huth