The setup: Most scholars think The Two Gentlemen of Verona was William Shakespeare's first play (that anyone knows about). It's a lightweight romantic comedy with a terrible, terrible ending. A guy forgives his best friend for attempting to rape his fiancée, everyone forgives everyone for everything else (about 400% more plausible), and it's double-wedding time.
People have written their Bard-worshipping little fingers off trying to attribute this clunker to something other than new-playwright awkwardness. (The Taming of the Shrew poses a similar dilemma, but the beginning and middle of the play are complex enough that it's easier to work up to a justifiable resolution.) Meanwhile, Two Gents has many memorable scenes that acting students tend to do in school (usually not the rapey-forgivey one, so that's at least one less thing parents of an acting student have to worry about), a beautiful song that Southwest Shakespeare Company leaves out of its current production, and a wonderful master-dog relationship. The execution: This is a good Shakespeare play for setting in other times and places, and director David Vining and the design team, including a pair of proficient musicians who are also in the cast, have created a suitable 1928 Chicago environment, with newsboys, gangsters, molls, bootleggers, shoeshine boys, political kingpins, and Jack Pauly as a kind of amazingly portrayed toady/romantic rival who looks like Jack Benny and sounds like Thurston Howell III (who also kind of looks like Jack Benny).
When people are playing ukeleles and singing and breaking into tap-dancing, led by national champion Amelia Ellis with choreography by Erica Connell, the play's fairly fun. There's even a trailer that strongly suggests so. (Dead playwrights don't complain about YouTube previews.)
But the concept seems to be more about pre-crash opulence and insouciance than anything else, and I don't really see that doing the script any favors. Despite Two Gents being the least-populated and one of the shortest Shakespeare scripts, as Vining mentions in his program notes, there are several pages and a few people I would just as soon have skipped.
The title characters are two lifelong friends, Proteus (Ian Christensen) and Valentine (Marshall Glass). One of the premises Vining explains is that people got to pick their friends in Elizabethan times, as now, but often wound up in arranged marriages, so friendship was paramount.
But in just about every one of Shakespeare's romances, including this one, people struggle to marry the person they love, no matter what their parents want. And that destined true-love relationship is the one that's vomited and trampled upon in the final scene, causing several people in the audience (as well as a couple on stage, actually) to moan "Ohhh" in an offended and disbelieving tone.
So, yeah, keep doing the play for the reasons we do Shakespeare, but figure something out for that ending, dudes. Establishing perp Proteus as super-pathetic earlier on is one thing that can help, but Christiansen's Proteus is, if appropriately a little dim, kind of a skeevy plotter throughout as well. It would be interesting to see these two actors switch characters. (Not that I'm saying they don't play their parts well or each have the chops to have played them very differently -- they do; it's more of a feeling I get.)
And though it's sweet to see a band of Rudy Vallée-style preppies under Lady Silvia's window singing "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," having composers on deck means you could achieve a similar arrangement with the real song, which kind of rules:
Who is Silvia? what is she, that all our swains commend her? Holy, fair and wise is she; the heaven such grace did lend her, That she might admired be. Is she kind as she is fair? For beauty lives with kindness. Love doth to her eyes repair, To help him of his blindness, and, being help'd, inhabits there. Then to Silvia let us sing, that Silvia is excelling; She excels each mortal thing upon the dull earth dwelling: To her let us garlands bring.
It's very unfair to say I know this can be done because I've seen it, but I have, in a beachy '60s Gents at University of Arizona long ago. It's unfair because legitimate criticism ends when one starts redirecting the play in one's head. I just really miss the Silvia song, and it reinforces what a lovely person her character is, which can help explain why people fall in love with her even when it's a shitty thing to do to multiple other people.
A couple of scenes do totally rock here. Jonathan Furedy (Octopus) and co-music director Jason William Steffen (The Misanthrope) have great moves as the servant/clown characters Launce and Speed, and they open the second half of the show with a filthy, funny, flirty conversation that includes the ladies in the first few rows of the audience.
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Furedy also gets to act with a Corgi mix named Nigel, who plays Crab, Launce's hapless and beloved dog, and because Furedy has a sweet-puppy face of his own, Nigel doesn't upstage him. (Nigel is actually one of the most boring dog-actors I've even seen, but that still makes him more entertaining than most people.) And Danielle Stout, whose Lucetta is no big whoop, is hysterical later in the show as a lanky, gun-totin' refugee from justice. You can see why she got an internship with the Rockettes.
The verdict: Remember when you had to sit through TV commercials? That's one way to enjoy The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Engage in the interesting parts, and let the rest just kind of slide by. Even this fast-paced, talent-filled production can't leave behind that reputation of talkiness that Shakespeare worked hard to earn.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona continues through Saturday, October 26, at Mesa Arts Center, One East Main Street. Call 480-644 6500 for tickets, $24 to $35, or order here.