Monday, April 23, 2018

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

I hadn’t seen this play live in years - since before kids. My wife and I (or was she a girlfriend then? I forget) saw it at Bakersfield College, in the rare year they performed their plays indoors, with seats on most sides of the stage. I remember two things about it. First, there were a few actors who were college students then who we saw over the years in other venues - it was kind of a starting point for some local theater people behind the scenes too. The second was that the homoerotic elements were played up pretty heavily.

Seeing it again, years later, at The Empty Space was a rather different experience. In Bob Kempf’s directorial vision this time, the farcical elements came to the front, as did the viewpoints of the two central women. In addition, rather than young folks getting their start, this play featured young actors who have paid their dues in smaller parts over the past few years getting a chance to shine in lead roles.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies - some believe it was the first one he wrote. Already, a number of Shakespeare’s devices and themes are apparent. There is the young woman who disguises herself as a boy, the conflict between the bonds of friendship and the lure of romantic love, and love making people do really silly things. In general, the language isn’t as amazing as in the mature Shakespeare works, but it has its moments - including a delightful denouement.

Valentine and Proteus are best buds, just starting off in the world. Their names are symbolic. Valentine is the faithful friend and faithful lover of Silvia, the daughter of the Duke. He goes to Milan to expand his horizons, meets Silvia, and attempts to win over the Duke, who would rather she marry the vacuous and cowardly Thurius (Brent Starrh as a ditzy cowboy.)  Proteus means “changeable” in this context, and he certainly is. Supposedly deeply in love with Julia, he falls in love with Silvia on sight, and then finds himself betraying his best friend’s plan to elope with Silvia, so he can pursue her himself. Meanwhile, Julia misses Proteus, so she disguises herself as a boy, takes her maid along, and goes to find Proteus, only to find him mooning over Silvia.

This all could end very badly, but this is a comedy, so it comes out all right in the end - but barely.

One of the things that struck me about the play the first time is the, um, strong bond between Valentine and Proteus. In some ways it is an echo (perhaps intentionally?) of the description of David and Jonathan from I Samuel, where their souls were “knit together,” and David would lament after the death of his friend that his love for Jonathan was “more wonderful than the love of a woman.” Make whatever you will of that, but it is the same with Valentine and Proteus. They are lifelong friends, and their bond is essentially greater than any other. That is why it seems that Proteus doesn’t agonize much at all about betraying Julia. No, what causes him the most agony is that he betrays Valentine for the sake of Silvia. I mean, this does kind of make sense - his love for Julia is pretty new compared with his life friendship. But still...anyway, that part wasn’t really played up in this version, but the lines themselves remain intriguing, as is the reconciliation at the end. Valentine is much more magnanimous than Julia - she accepts Proteus grudgingly and under duress.

Also interesting is the way that the two couples are matched. Valentine may be unexpectedly infatuated with Silvia, but he is a faithful lover throughout, never wavering in his affection for her, and never believing ill of Proteus until he sees the betrayal with his own eyes. Silvia is likewise faithful. And not in a “stand by your man” way either. She heaps witty opprobrium on Proteus for abandoning his own love for her, and makes it clear she will stay true to Valentine no matter what. (She even wishes herself devoured by wild beasts rather than rescued by Proteus.) The two are a match. But so are, in their own ways, Proteus and Julia. They are both too passionate for their own good, and too volatile toward others. Proteus can’t control his passions, and they lead him to betrayals. Julia abuses her loyal servant Lucetta and refuses to listen to her sensible (and witty) advice. (Surely the servants get the best lines in Shakespeare’s comedies…) You can imagine Valentine and Silvia being a power couple, seamlessly taking over for the Duke in due course, and ruling well. Julia and Proteus, on the other can just see the dishes flying.

Julia gets one of the best scenes in Shakespeare, at the end. Still disguised as “Sebastian,” she admits to never delivering a certain ring to Silvia - a ring which she gave to Proteus in pledge of her love. When Proteus asks to see it, she gives him the one he gave her as his pledge. Proteus is a bit slow in the uptake, and he doesn’t see it.

Proteus: But how cam’st thou by this ring? At my depart
I gave this unto Julia.

Julia: And Julia herself did give it me,
And Julia herself hath brought it hither.

In this production, between her two lines, Julia removes her hat and lets her hair fall. “And Julia herself hath brought it hither” is delivered with such a look of venom, the audience reacted audibly.

Immediately afterward, as Proteus is stammering for words, Julia gives a meaningful glance at Silvia - who has had her back all along - and delivers this marvelous line:

Julia: Behold her that gave aim to all thy oaths,
And entertain’d ’em deeply in her heart.
How oft hast thou with perjury cleft the root?
O Proteus, let this habit make thee blush!
Be thou asham’d that I have took upon me
Such an immodest raiment—if shame live
In a disguise of love!
It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.

Mic drop right there.

 Shelbe McClain as Julia disguised as "Sebastian."

I won’t quote all of it, but there is also a series of marvelous scenes featuring Launce, Proteus’ unreliable servant, the comic relief of the play. Launce has a dog (a real dog in this production), who is, um, even less reliable than Launce. After all, when Launce attempts to give said dog to Silvia as a gift, Crab manages to stink up the place, start a dog fight, and pee on a woman’s skirt. Oh, and Launce’s discussion with Speed, Valentine’s servant, about a woman (s)he wants to marry. Shakespeare’s lowbrow moments are all too funny, I will confess.

A bit about this particular production is in order. The setting was essentially 1950s in somewhere western to midwestern. Which meant the soundtrack was predominantly Buddy Holly - I’m not complaining about that! Shakespeare’s comedies can work anywhere, as far as that goes, so the anachronism wasn’t grating. (In fact, the Utah Shakespeare Festival version of Comedy of Errors, set in the old west, was perfect - all that slapstick was right at home in a saloon town.)  

Valentine and Proteus were played by Nolan Long and Carlos Vera, respectively. Both have played a variety of bit parts over the last couple of years, but neither had played a lead in any of the productions I have seen. I have mentioned them, however, as actors to watch, because they showed promise in their limited scenes. I thought both did quite well. Long showed admirable gravitas as Valentine, but was expressive as well. Vera has always tended to play his roles with a bit of an edge, so it was interesting to see him play the lover instead. While some scenes called on his sturm and drang, he showed a softer touch in others. Both Long and Vera are young - I hope they stick around locally.

 Nolan Long (Valentine) and Mystie Peters (Silvia)
TES publicity photo

The lead female parts were also played by young actors. I know Mystie Peters has had small parts in a number of plays locally, and she is active behind the scenes as a board member. She took on the role of the more serious Silvia. In contrast, Julia was played by Shelbe McClain, who has a knack for the kind of not-quite-under-control emotionalism for this part. (See, for example, The Three Sisters earlier this year.) McClain really connected with the audience in this one, delivering her wounded pride and fury with both clear diction and razor-sharp fury. As I noted above, her reveal at the end was well played.

 Shelbe McClain (Julia) and Carlos Vera (Proteus)

Also noteworthy were the three servants. All three were played by Empty Space regulars. Cory Rickard has been in so many local productions, I have completely lost track. (Most recently, as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, but I know there are many more.) As the sarcastic Lucetta, she made a great foil for Julia. Speed was portrayed by Claire Rock, another regular (and personnel director for TES) - she stole her scenes last year as Tybalt. This year, she got to play straight (wo)man to the goofy Launce. Speaking of Launce, Victoria Lusk took on that role - and didn’t let the dog steal the scenes, which isn’t easy with a really cute dog. I didn’t hardly recognize her - I last saw her as a very blonde Inga in Young Frankenstein. Back to brunette, with an aviator helmet as her main costume element, she looked quite different. But no matter. As usually the shortest actor on the stage, she plays big whatever she does, and she was hilarious.

 Kiki (Crab the dog) and Victoria Lusk (Launce)

I should mention one of the challenges of modern staging of Shakespeare. Back in Shakespeare’s day, women were not permitted to act. All parts were played by men and boys. (Which makes for some pretty funny jokes, actually.) But, in our modern era (meaning after the theaters reopened once Cromwell died…), there are an abundance of talented female actors and too few parts in most Shakespeare plays. Thus, The Empty Space (and others around town) have usually made some substitutions. There are essentially two approaches to this. One can dress the women as men (in a reversal of Shakespeare’s time) and have them play “male” parts, or one can change the part itself to that of a female, and go with it.

Either works, but the second does bring another question. Do you change pronouns or not? In this production, it was done both ways.

In the case of the Duke, Angela Poncetta (another TES regular) played the Duke as a female. This meant that in one scene, when she catches Valentine in his plan to elope, she talks about wooing an eligible man the way Valentine might woo a woman. This is interesting, naturally, because it gives a full gender role reversal. The powerful woman courts the coy man, who is hidden away by his relatives. It is a great example of how sexist ideas can often be laid bare by a simple gender reversal.

 Angela Poncetta (the Duke) and Brent Starrh (Thurio)

But in the other instance, the gender was kept the same. Launce is played by a female, but dresses sort of like a man, but not so much that you can suspend disbelief. Rather, one might say, Launce is a woman, but refuses to conform. Fair enough, but then, in the scene where Launce is considering marrying a mail-order bride (more or less), you get both the hilarity of the scene - and a potential gay relationship played straight up. (But then remember they were all guys originally…) And the thing is, this isn’t really incongruent in a Shakespeare play, where plays on gender and sexuality are everywhere.

We took all the kids to this one - we take our littlest to some, but not too many of the plays we go to. Everyone enjoyed this one, which is a testimony to the way TES is able to bring the stories to life through the acting, not just Shakespeare’s wonderful language.

As I have said before many times, The Empty Space is a bargain, and part of a vibrant local theater scene. Come on out and see this play, and check out the solid lineup of productions planned for the rest of this year.


  1. You really should add the supporting cast in your reviews. Did you not see the 3 thugs who made Valentin their leader? They got the biggest laughs of all.

    1. I try to include them when I can. It depends on my work schedule a bit - this blog is definitely a hobby, not a job. Yes, the thugs were great. :)