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The Two Gentlemen of Verona                  Shakespeare Santa Cruz, 1999

Mark de la Vina - San Jose Mercury News

Pick a love.  Any love.  You want the love between two friends, then Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona has got it.  A secret love between a man and a woman; again, it’s in Two Gents.  There’s also the love between a father and daughter, the discarded love of an unfaithful beau, an unapproachable love, a desperate love, even the love between a master and his mangy mutt.

But if there’s one kind of love that shines out of the Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Two Gents that opened on Tuesday, it’s the love of a swift and entertaining show.  Director Tim Ocel, who most recently directed 1997’s As You Like It for Santa Cruz, has turned one of Shakespeare’s most maligned plays into a limber, refreshingly waggish contemporary retelling of the story of two hormonally charged guys named Valentine and Proteus.

Sheathed in a frisky pop-cultural covering, TwoGents manages to become a perky tale of two young men who wish to run off to the big city to join the court of the Duke.  And Ocel festoons the whole affair with amped-up characters and colorfully reworked scenes.

Potentially one of Shakespeare’s most musical plays (Joseph Papp even launched a rock‘n’roll version of Two Gents on Broadway back in1971), the production's lone musical number, “Who is Silvia?” is turned into what R&B radio programmers today would term a slow jam. Performing the song like an aspiring lounge singer on “Star Search,” Mike Ryan as Proteus serenades Silvia (Courtney Peterson) with the backing of a trio that performs like dime-store Backstreet Boys.  While Ryan awkwardly warbles into his cordless mike, Host (Benton Greene), who’s a braided, ganja-sucking slacker, dozes off in a stoned haze.

Two Gents is full of wonderful moments by the play’s more vibrant characters.  Colman Domingo plays Speed, Valentine’s servant, as a bicycle messenger who teasingly pulls out love notes from his trusty bag.  Eglamour (PeterTroxell), enlisted by Silvia to find Valentine, is decked out in a safari outfit by costume designer B. Modem when he ventures into the wilderness.  And Thurio (Dominic Comperatore) is a bored, tuxedoed member of the court who regularly chitchats on a cellphone.

Ramsey Avery’s set, virtually the same as the one he designed for Romeo and Juliet, is dominated by a billboard featuring a pair of surfer dudes looking at a bikini-clad woman emerging Venus-like from the surf.  “Somethings are never meant to end...” is printed along with a Web site address. … And the board nicely illustrates the principal, albeit oddly depicted, idea of the play that true friendship endures.

Playing the Gents and looking like extras from Triumph of the Will are Hans Altwies and Mike Ryan.  Altwies’ Valentine is a fitness-crazed dreamer who, along with his ambitions, develops a secret love for Silvia.  He plays the social climber looking to crack the business world, an up-and-comer who manages to slip into the realm of the Duke of Milan (Joseph Ribeiro).

Like his character’s namesake, Ryan plays Proteus as an ever-changing opportunist who would sell out his mother.  More flawed than outright despicable, he gives a boyish quality to the amoral sleazeball.  Jenni Kirk gives the scorned Julia a vulnerability that's both painful and pathetic.  And Peterson plays Silvia as a no-nonsense ‘90s gal complete with a stylin’ pink and purple running suit.

Gregg Coffin, who plays Proteus’ servant Launce with a vaguely Brooklyn accent, leans toward a vaudevillian interpretation of the play's funniest character.  During Launce's speech about his painful departure from home, he creates a symphony of silly weeping sounds when demonstrating with his shoes, staff and hat the reaction of family members.

Coffin plays off Harry, the strawberry blond dog that so convincingly portrays Lauce’s sidekick Crab.  Coffin’s comedic dexterity reminds us of his Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Santa Cruz Twelfth Night.  Harry, who is owned by Romeo and Juliet stage manager Paula Donnelly, looks like across between a Chia pet and a pygmy, polar bear as the perfectly disinterested Crab.

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Gregg Coffin

The Two Gentlemen of Verona


Geva Theatre Center


Photo: Ken Huth