“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, in which he tests out the themes that will help define his future work — foolishness in love, mistaken identity, disguise and transformation — however, scholars often regard the play as one of his weakest.
It’s a romantic comedy that, on paper, doesn’t quite hit “romance” or “comedy,” instead floundering into the territory of vaguely parsing male friendship and loyalty. For that reason, it takes an exceptionally strong cast to transcend some of the play’s shortcomings and bring a cohesive vision to the stage — something that Kentucky Shakespeare succeeds in doing with exceptional style.
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” opens on best friends Proteus (Jon Patrick O’Brien) and Valentine (Zachary Burrell). Valentine is heading to Milan, while Proteus stays in Verona where he woos Julia (Maggie Lou Rader).
Once in Milan, Valentine falls for the duke’s daughter, Sylvia (Arielle Leverett). Despite the fact that the duke (Jon Huffman) does not approve of their union, the pair plan to elope — that is, until Proteus travels to Milan and falls head over heels for Sylvia, seemingly erasing all thoughts of Julia from his memory.
The rest of the play follows the friends as their loyalty to one another and the women they love is tested, which is only made more complicated when Julia — who is disguised as a man — arrives in Milan to check up on Proteus.
Director Matt Wallace set this production in 1919, immediately following World War I. This decision (which is beautifully brought to life by set designer Paul Owen and costume designer Donna Lawrence-Downs) is key in heightening the story for several reasons. Starting off, it solidifies the theme of male friendship present in the script. By bringing the idea of war with its inherent masculinity to the forefront, Wallace is urging the audience to consider the bonds between soldiers and what happens when that connection is severed.
On a more superficial level, 1919 was a time of of musical revolution — something that Kentucky Shakespeare (via musical director Chris Bryant and choreographer Barb Cullen) takes full advantage of. This production is filled with early jazz and ragtime, which serves to ease transitions between scenes, as well showcase the musical talents of the entire cast (most notably, Marci Duncan as the Hostess of Milan).
As a cast, the performances are dynamic. But it’s once the actors are paired off that the onstage chemistry really shines. The banter between Julia and her waiting-woman Lucetta (Megan Massie) is a strong point, as is the witty commentary by clownish servants Launce (Gregory Maupin) and Speed (Abigail Bailey Maupin) — especially once Crab the dog (Hope) is thrown into the mix. Finally, the performance by the trio of outlaws (Byron Coolie, Neill Robertson and Braden McCampbell) is perfectly timed.
All these elements combine to reveal that this play is, in fact, truly a comedy — one that the dynamic cast of Kentucky Shakespeare succeeds in interpreting beyond the script.
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” runs June 7-12, and July 13, 16, 20, 23. More information about the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival 2016 season can be found here.