Let’s get this out of the way first. Two Gentlemen of Verona is not Shakespeare’s worst play. Not by a long shot; not in a universe which has Timon of Athens and Coriolanus and Two Noble Kinsmen. Two Gents has its problems; it was Shakespeare’s first play and was thus more bound to 16th-century conventions than his later work. But it is full of twists and surprises, and has the best passage on love in the entire canon. Admittedly, it is about a love between a man and his dog, but it is more authentic than all the palm to palm in holy palmer’s kisses in the world.
But if you are to enjoy Mike Reiss and Nick Newlin’s play — and you should — you must accept their premise. So for purposes of our evening’s entertainment, Two Gents is the worst play the Bard ever wrote. Reiss — long a writer on “The Simpsons” — puts their purpose plainly in his program notes: “The idea came instantly: let’s do a straight production of Shakespeare’s worst play, but with one minor character constantly commenting to the audience about how bad the show sucks. Call it Mystery Science Theater 1600.”
This describes Shakespeare’s Worst to a T. We are given a fifty-minute production of Two Gents which constitutes the very definition of badness. It is a festival of catastrophe; a tsunami of theatrical incompetence; a gaggle of meaningless words bleated out by actors who are dimly aware of the monstrosity they are creating but powerless to stop. In the midst of all this horribleness, the actor playing the dimbulb servant Launce (Chris Stinson) breaks the fourth wall to let us know that all the horribleness we’re seeing is even more horrible than we think.
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Wait — that’s not right, exactly. Chris Stinson is actually playing “Chris Stinson”, a comic actor who successfully auditioned for the richly comic role of Launce. But “Chris Stinson” doesn’t know how bad this play and production are going to be. He finds out before our eyes, and enlists our sympathies so that we don’t blame him for all the badness. He counts aloud the number of times the word “sheep” is pronounced in a conversation between Proteus (Kiernan McGowan) and the other dimbulb servant, Speed (Charlie Retzlaff) — but you know what happens to people who count sheep, don’t you? His dog, Crab, appears in the form of a sock puppet (this is not a high-budget production) and interrupts Launce’s monologue to make snide comments about the current chief magistrate. “Chris Stinson” makes fun of the other characters’ names. And he is so horrified by the ending that he demands that the characters redo the scene in English, and then in American. The horror doesn’t go away.
Shakespeare’s Worst closes July 21, 2019 at Capital Fringe Festival.
Details and tickets
Of course, in order for Stinson to be funny — and he is freakin’ hilarious — the production must truly be horrible. I’m pleased to report that the Shakespeare’s Worst cast hits the mark. And the most horrible of the horrible is Davon Harris, who plays the protagonist, Valentine. It is clear that he has no idea what he is saying. He smiles and frowns at random; when the other actors speak, he wears a puzzled look. As his mystification increases, he plows ahead resolutely, hoping, perhaps, that nobody notices. Of course, when I say that Harris is absolutely horrible as Valentine, I mean that he is very good, since horribleness is the whole purpose of Shakespeare’s Worst.
The other actors are pretty horrible too, to their credit. Marti and Retzlaff are decent in the roles they play first, but when they transmute into other characters (she as Valentine’s love Sylvia and he as the Duke of Milan) they become ridiculous. Raven Bonniwell (as the Lady Julia) and McGowan behave more like real actors but do little attention-grabbing things which bring actors’ careers up short in the real world.
The Cliff’s Notes version of Two Gents is that Proteus and Valentine are two good friends living in Verona. Proteus is in love with Julia. Valentine moves to Milan (which the actors here constantly mispronounce) and falls in love with the Duke’s daughter, Sylvia. When Proteus visits Milan he decides he wants Sylvia, so he betrays his friend to the Duke. The Duke banishes Valentine while Proteus makes off with Sylvia, who is supposed to marry some other guy. Valentine chases them, catches them, and forgives Proteus. Meanwhile, Julia, disguised as a servant of Proteus, leaps out and reclaims her man. Happiness ensues.
Yeah, it’s tough to do. But the late, great P.J. Paparelli figured out a way to stage it, absolutely clear and full of vital juice, at STC in 2012. And the story had enough bones to be the basis of a rock opera by John Guare, Mel Shapiro and Galt MacDermot. But if Reiss and Newlin want to make fun of it, so be it. Especially if it’s as funny as this is.
Shakespeare’s Worst, by Mike Reiss and Nick Newlin, directed by Bridget Grace Sheaff . Featuring Davon Harris, Kiernan McGowan, Charlie Retzlaff, Raven Bonniwell, Nick Marti, and Chris Stinson . Set and Props designer: Willow Watson . Lighting designer: Jason Augdem-Brinke . Costume designer: Jennifer Kasnadi . Sound designer: Tosin Olufolabi . Stage manager: Allison Poms, assisted by Rachel Walsh . Produced by the 2019 Capital Fringe Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor