How do you solve a problem like The Two Gentlemen of Verona? This comedy, often speculated by scholars to be the first of Shakespeare’s plays, is one of his least-beloved (and least performed) works – and not without reason. The language, by Shakespearean standards, is weak. The meandering story offers numerous plot points and themes that Shakespeare would address more skillfully in later, better plays. And The Two Gentlemen of Verona’s notoriously dicey fifth act – which features, most infamously, a scene in which protagonist Valentine offers his beloved to a friend who has just attempted to rape her – is all but unworkable on both storytelling and moral grounds.
Given the many inherent difficulties of the text, it’s particularly impressive that the Shakespeare Theatre Company has mounted not just one, but two simultaneous productions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. By comparison to the mainstage’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, which plays through March 4th, Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera) is small-scale – a minimally-staged adaptation, rehearsed for just nine days and playing over a single weekend – but strong performances, clever music, and a loose, infectious sense of fun makes this no-frills staging well worth your attention.
Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera) begins by taking the smartest approach to the original play’s numerous problems: it openly mocks them. The cheeky tone is set at the outset, when the play opens with a recitation of the familiar first lines from Romeo and Juliet – “two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona” – before the narrator is corrected by a fellow cast member on his mistake. Similar winks at the audience throughout the play, which assumes no familiarity with Shakespeare’s text and offers enough accessibility that the children sitting in front of me regularly burst into fits of giggles.
For better or worse, the actual Shakespearean dialogue is generally kept at a minimum, and the emphasis in this “rock opera” is, perhaps fittingly, on the music. Fortunately, the songs are uniformly clever – and performed with tongue very much in cheek. Genres vary, from rock to samba to calypso to a kind of a proto-Barbershop. But the best thing overall about the music is the sharpness of the lyrics, which playfully skewer each of the play’s ridiculous characters and offers ample meta-commentaries on the oddball aspects of the text. It’s clear, based on this witty performance, why the original 1971 Broadway production won Tony Awards for both Best Musical and Best Book.
Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera) is abetted by a game ensemble cast, with Broadway actors mixing with local performers, who pull off the varied score with style. Though no one in the play sings a bum note, the standouts are Terence Archie and Eleasha Gamble, who play lovers Valentine and Silvia. Mr. Archie moves deftly between Shakespearean English, contemporary slang, and musical bon mots, making each of his many punchlines land, and land hard. And the charismatic Ms. Gamble, who has one of the play’s fickler (and thus trickier) roles, performs beautifully with each of her three prospective suitors. Given the combined strength of their performances, it’s unsurprising that the highlight of Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera) is the one-two punch of “To Whom It May Concern” and “Night Letter” – the back-to-back duets Valentine and Silvia share at the end of act one.
The production itself is likably unpretentious and relaxed. It’s unsurprising that this smaller-scale staging is minimalist in both props and set, with a dog being “played” by a hand puppet and a boat trip to Milan being conveyed by the actors pushing a chair across the stage.
Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera) doesn’t bother to establish a consistent time period, juxtaposing Renaissance-style costumes with Segway scooters and coin-operated telephones. The audience even gets in on the anachronistic action; glowsticks are distributed to luckier attendees, who get the chance to employ them at two pivotal points in the play.
And as for that infamous final act? Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera) makes its slyest commentary on Shakespeare’s original play, as the actors openly note the inherent ridiculousness of their actions by double-checking their scripts on stage and confirming, “That’s what’s written.” Where its sister production on the mainstage attempts to make sense of the original text’s idiosyncrasies, Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera) is cheerfully content to laugh at them and move on. It’s a smart take on a tough text, and just like the play’s characters, you’ll be having too much fun to give much thought to The Two Gentlemen of Verona’s rougher patches.
Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera) closed January 29th, 2012.
Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera)
Based on the play by William Shakespeare
Book by and John Guare and Mel Shapiro . music by Gait MacDermot . lyrics by John Guare
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
Choreography by Spencer Liff
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company as part of The Bards’ Broadway series
Reviewed by Scott Meslow
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission