Sunday, September 28, 2014

"The Two Gentlemen of Verona": subtle examination of young love or the slapdash work of a tyro? IRT suggests the former

There's not much you can do to lower Shakespeare's monumental stature, despite the pedestal-toppling  efforts of some great figures in Western literature (Voltaire, Shaw, and Tolstoy among them). Even if you produce such a weak work as "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," there's just enough merit in the text — and foreshadowings of greatness — that a whiz-bang theatrical presentation can lift it.

That's what Indiana Repertory Theatre accomplishes in its season-opening production. But lift it to what? the question arises. Certainly not to the level of the mature comedies. Even the early Roman comedy rewrite, "The Comedy of Errors," is more fun on the page,  besides being theatrically irresistible, given its tangles of mistaken identity. IRT just finished its second weekend presenting "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and the show's entertainment value is immense, far beyond what the material suggests. It looks and sounds great, staged with IRT's typical flair.

Words to throw at a dog: Ryan Artzberger as Launce, Jenna as Crab.
One of the countless phrases Shakespeare lent the language is from this play: "to make a virtue of necessity."  It's so appropriate that the company, with this production  under Tim Ocel's direction, turns the necessity of carrying this odd story of male bonding and betrayal and inexplicable forgiveness into a virtue.  Vigorous performances do the trick, with a certain amount of forgivable mugging carried up the line from a gabby, clownish servant, Launce.

The eminent critic Harold Bloom goes so far as to wonder why Launce "is wasted upon The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is not at all good enough for him."  I can't quite agree, despite the rib-tickling virtuosity of Ryan Artzberger in the role  — a comic pinnacle underscored by the appeal of the laconic canine actor Jenna in the role of Crab, Launce's dog.

Because of the menace of upstaging, the immortal W. C. Fields advised adult entertainers against ever appearing onstage with children or dogs. Artzberger has now done both in recent memory (as Scrooge, he shoulders Tiny Tim annually in IRT's "Christmas Carol"), surmounting the danger handsomely in both instances.

Valentine (Charles Pasternak) and Proteus (Chris Bresky) embrace: We know what the "bro hug" means in the first scene, but what can it possibly mean in the last one?
Chris Bresky exhibits a wide range of facial expression as Proteus, the lovesick Veronese gentleman who is sent away to Milan to join his bosom buddy Valentine. There this cad-in-chrysalis emerges to become smitten with Valentine's girlfriend, Silvia, and schemes to supplant him in her affections.  Proteus is the more interesting of the two men, because however farfetched, his behavior is plausible and his determination to win a new woman for himself by any means necessary gets a lot of Shakespeare's attention. And whatever the Bard focuses on we would be unwise to belittle.

Valentine, on the other hand, barely earns our sympathy,  because he is sort of a blank. Victimized cruelly, he presents the puzzle of no-strings-attached amnesty for Proteus' crime in the last scene. There's a final "bro hug" between the two  — we've seen these hearty embraces earlier, but this one is questionable, to say the least — and then there's Valentine's pat speech assuring all concerned of future happiness. Charles Pasternak should be credited with bringing more vitality and wit to the character than its creator did.

The plot is surprisingly straightforward, yet the obstacles it raises toward the play's unrewarding resolution are hard to describe succinctly. It's best just to note several outstanding aspects of the supporting cast:  Of his three roles, Scot Greenwell gets the most scope as the play's other clown Speed, Valentine's servant, whom he raises in vitality nearly to the same plane as the critically esteemed Launce. Speed's explanation to his boss of the roundabout route of a love letter Valentine has written to Julia (and the suddenly dense Valentine's reaction) is hilarious in an Abbott-and-Costello way.

In Verona, Ashley Wickett is saucy and blunt in trying to cool the overheated romantic fantasies of her mistress, Julia (in Lee Stark's fetchingly intense portrayal). In the Milan scenes, Wickett makes a fiercely loyal Silvia, fit to spurn the conceited suitor Thurio (Matt Holzfeind) and upbraid the would-be usurper Proteus. Robert Neal is eminent in both locales, first as Proteus' father, Antonio, then as the Duke of Milan; he gives stunning authority to each role.

It can't be doubted that IRT is to be commended for almost making a silk purse out of a piglet's ear. I believe that the entire Shakespeare canon needs to come to life on the world's stages with a frequency depending on the insight that can be brought to the shows, from the masterpieces on down.

Still, I couldn't help mischievously thinking "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" might be a more interesting play if the description of the minor character Panthino in the program book were the true one. It says he's a "suitor to Antonio."

The lowly Panthino (also Holzfeind) is, of course, servant to Antonio, as noted in the revised insert.  But what fun, in the era of same-sex marriage, to imagine the other possibility.