The Two Gentlemen of Verona is not the most amusing of William Shakespeare's comedies. It's clumsily constructed and makes an awkward shift into melodrama toward the end of the first act. All that makes Arizona Theatre Company's colossal production of the 16th-century satire all the more impressive.
Frankly, I've had enough contemporized Shakespeare to last a lifetime. I've seen Much Ado About Nothing set in 1960s Haight Ashbury, Romeo and Juliet as a '70s drag pageant, and The Tempest as a '40s gangster epic. So I was less than excited to hear that director David Ira Goldstein (who mounted a boffo A Midsummer Night's Dream last season for ATC) had relocated The Two Gentlemen of Verona to Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties.
Nonetheless, Goldstein--with the assistance of a fine cast and a shrewd set designer--roped me into enjoying Shakespeare Lite. Again. And although he plays mercilessly with the original text, the director has an understanding of the Elizabethan bawdy that serves his giddy adaptation well.
This is the one about love and loyalty and the girl who dresses as a boy to catch her lover being untrue. In Goldstein's version, Milan is a Tinseltown sound stage, where scenes from Cleopatra and Dracula are shot while the actors onstage spout Elizabethan English. (The director draws a none-too-subtle parallel between Valentine's fortune-hunting in Milan with the silent-movie-era myth that Hollywood was the land of plenty.) Here, the clowns, Speed and Lance, play off each other as in a Ritz Brothers sketch, and the play's "Outlaws" are varmints straight out of Central Casting. I could go on, but part of the fun of watching this interpretation is in discovering what Goldstein will do next.
The problem with camouflaging the Bard's original story so completely is that, once you dress it up, Verona's slender story and weak language become more apparent. Goldstein's answer is to pile on more lightheaded allusions, and to further fidget with the characters.
The excellent cast features some notable names from national and regional theatre, including Apollo Dukakis, Benjamin Stewart and Roberto Guajardo. Local favorites Bob Sorenson and Nicolas Glaeser steal every scene in sight with their comic clowning, and Jeff Steitzer makes more of the hapless Lance than the character probably deserves.
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Stacy Ross must be tired of being compared to Jodie Foster, but it's all there--the voice, the mannerisms, the delivery. Her reading of Julia's soliloquy about her lover's letters is captivating, and she's boyishly charming when impersonating the page, Sebastian. And I like any excuse to watch Molly Shaffer perform; here, she stands out as a member of a distinguished ensemble.
Although Goldstein fusses with the original text a little too much (several of his vaudevillian asides made me cringe), he does so with an eye toward making the material accessible to a new audience. And who knows? If the Bard were around today, he might well have had his heroines dancing the Black Bottom, too.
Arizona Theatre Company's production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona continues through Saturday, October 26, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.