'Two Gentlemen': a midsummer night's confection

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By Doug Deuchler

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It's been said that the true test of a Shakespeare troupe is not how it handles the best of the Bard's plays, but what it does with the least of them. I'm not saying The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a bad play. But it's an early effort that's rarely revived. This lesser-known comedy is usually considered to be William Shakespeare's first play, c. 1590, penned when he was in his mid-20s. 

So we are extremely fortunate to have Oak Park Festival Theatre's charming production with its captivating young cast, strongly and imaginatively directed by Lavina Jadhwani, here in Austin Gardens for the next month. It's a light, breezy midsummer confection.

Among its other attributes, this work is basically a laboratory of dramatic ideas — a wonderful warehouse of possibilities Shakespeare would tap into when writing future plays, such as two men in love with the same woman, a woman disguised as a man, mistaken identity, a band of forest bandits, smart-aleck servants, a babe-on-a-balcony, and young lovers triumphing over obstructive parents.

I know there are purists who bristle at the thought of Shakespeare performed in any time period other than the Elizabethan Age. But this version, a sweet romantic romp set in the 1980s, is dizzy and delightful. I was pleasantly relieved to see the young cast wearing smart summery attire designed by Emily McConnell. 

When I heard about the time switch, I dreaded being confronted with the '80s once again with all its big scary details — big bouffant hair, big glasses, big shoulder pads, and such. But have no fear. This production is a lovely glance back at our not-too-distant past as sweetly depicted in the coming-of-age films of John Hughes, such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Pretty in Pink

This show depicts what Hollywood dubbed the "bro-mance" — a close non-sexual friendship or intense bonding that suggests two dudes seeming like a couple. (Male friendship was actually deemed superior to romantic male-female love in Shakespeare's day.) 

When the play begins, Proteus and Valentine are two lifelong buddies who leave their hometown to experience life in a more exciting setting. But these two inseparable friends quickly become rivals for the love of a woman.

Valentine (Michael Pogue) sets out first into the world to seek his fortune and find a real love. His pal Proteus (David Keohone) is an adventuresome young man who only has eyes for his hometown sweetheart Julia (Vahshta Vafadari). But once Valentine introduces him to his intelligent and lovely Silvia (Sigrid Sutter), the high-spirited daughter of a duke who is pursued by many eligible bachelors, fickle Proteus dumps Julia and forgets her completely. He quickly sets his sights on his friend's girl and morphs from a loyal friend into a cad, now hoping to elope with Silvia. 

Proteus is so smitten with her he even plots to betray his best friend Valentine to win her even though he knows she loves Valentine. 

In the meantime, betrayed Julia has no intention of going away quietly, so she disguises herself as a boy and takes action.

The actors, both the leads and secondary characters, deliver strong performances. Keohone as Proteus has an especially challenging role, having to be simultaneously attractive, charming, and heartless. He and Pogue are both quite enjoyable as they play off one another.

Silvia is the beautiful daughter of the Duke (Scot West) who has betrothed her against her will to the wealthy but vain and undesirable Thurio (Tim Martin). The Duke thinks Valentine is not good enough for Silvia. Thurio, who usually has a sweater tied around his neck in the old "Tennis, anyone?" mode, is actually rather endearing when he sings and does a "moonwalk"-gliding dance a la Michael Jackson. 

Noah Laufer is Proteus' funny, skateboard-carrying, red Converse-wearing servant Launce who is usually accompanied by his dog. It's a risk to use live animals in a theatrical production, but Oak Park Festival Theatre seems to have found a most able and lovable performer in the canine actor simply listed as Morgan. He has no bio in the playbill but I'm told he belongs to the stage manager. Morgan makes the perfect silent straight man.

Jack Hickey is Proteus' father and one of the forest outlaws. Valentine's servant, Speed, is played by Dan Cobbler.

The sturdy-looking, ivy-covered set with a balcony on top, which undoubtedly had to go up in just a few days once To Kill A Mockingbird closed, is designed by Margaret Goddard Knopp.

Before the show and during the intermission Rachel Aileen Regan's sound design provided fun 1980s music like "It's Raining Men" by The Weather Girls and "Our House" by Madness.

Lauren N. Fields is assistant director. Kelsey Lamm is stage manager.

Shakespeare is arguably not quite at the top of his game in this early work but he's still Shakespeare. There are lively characters, witty wordplay, exciting twists, and lots of lush poetry. It's thrilling to watch the conflict between friendship and love, which would become a staple of romantic comedy from the Globe to Hollywood and beyond for the next five centuries. Two Gentlemen of Verona contains the seeds of so much Shakespeare would write later. It's a treat to experience this seldom-staged comedy in such a fine, well-performed production.

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