The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Reviewed by Gray Palmer
Independent Shakespeare Co.
Through September 3
Good news: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, currently at Griffith Park, is another sensational production (this one with a rock ‘n roll theme) from Independent Shakespeare Company.
Many critics — crickets! — call Gentlemen one of the “weakest” of Shakespeare’s plays. Is it because the young men in the story are ridiculous? Fickle and flimsy? Is it the result of a moral hangover from the Victorian Shakespeare of the schoolrooms?
Two main reasons, I think. Shakespeare’s linguistic lindy-hopping comes later. The “love-praise” of young Proteus (earnest Evan Lewis Smith) and Valentine (vehement Nikhil Pai) is simple — a kind of Elizabethan pop — on the level, say, of Brian Wilson’s lyrics for “Guess I’m Dumb.” (This production begins with a sweet bit of surfer slide played on guitar by director-actor David Melville.)
You can take all the hormonal hypnosis straight, if you like. Proteus and Valentine certainly do. (Shakespeare doesn’t.) And if so, the action of the story will subvert and spin your position just as it does that of the nominal heroes. And you’ll end up, after suspense and heartache, with the emo equivalent of a rock ‘n roll sprain.
The smart rhetoric in Gentlemen is anti-poetic, to be found in the acrobatic arguments offered especially by the servant Speed (the perfectly mercurial Xavi Moreno) and the teasing Lucetta (in a great performance here by April Fritz), delivered mostly in prose that is clever, low, deflating, funny. That touches on the serious critic’s devaluating reason number two: the funny-bone hurts like hell, and literary scholarship is not notably sensitive to comedy.
And yes, the resolution of Gentlemen is famously controversial. After threatening, unmistakably, to rape Sylvia (good Sylvia Kwan), not only is Proteus forgiven by Valentine (without protest by Sylvia — or by anyone), but Valentine seems — only seems, however — to offer Sylvia to him.
That’s not quite A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is it? The threat of violence remains in the shadows of this comedy’s after-image. However, the narrative diagram requires instant reform, instant recognition, and the declaration of a double-wedding, all dispatched by 10:15 like a juggler’s trick (along with the slight melancholy surplus).
In Two Gentlemen, the happy results proceed from feminine choice, perfect for the unusual strength and spirit of ISC. The story’s entirely admirable character, the true heroine, is faithful Julia (Erika Soto). And Soto is heart-stopping in the role.
Director Melville’s staging of this early Shakespeare is a demonstration of the pure primacy of physical pleasure in the medium — a splendid animal show of theater. His musical choices are witty, the swing-dance choreography by Katie Powers-Faulk is a delight. And the comic set-pieces are very well-judged.
Melville also plays, brilliantly, Proteus’s servant Launce, who is seriously engaged in the moral improvement of his dog. Lorenzo González is so funny as Crab, the smelly dog, that without appearing to do anything at all except pant, he caused Melville to “corpse” on opening night, stopping the play for a few moments of helpless lunacy. González also plays Valentine’s obnoxious love-rival Thurio, with an accent worthy of Peter Sellers.
The entire company is terrific. And so is the design team.
Old Zoo at Griffith Park, near the Merry-Go-Round; Wed.-Sun. 7 pm. Through September 3. (818) 710-6306, iscla.org. Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with intermission.