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The Two Gentlemen of Verona — Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

tgv interior“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is Shakespeare in embryo.

You see history’s most talented and perceptive psychologist at work as he dissects elements of love, friendship, betrayal, and redemption. You notice how he goes overboard in comic bits that involve wordplay, something he’d master in later works. You hear flights of poetry, including the wonderful sung sonnet, “Who is Silvia?,” that presage the genius to come while taking in passages that are far more prosaic and direct  than will follow in subsequent works.

“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” shows us a simpler Shakespeare, one who keeps his story basic yet manages to engage and impress with his remarkable observations and uncanny knowledge of human behavior and its telltale signs.

In many ways, it is wonderful to become reacquainted with this early play that acquainted Shakespeare to Elizabethan audiences and helped launch his reputation.

If you believe Tom Stoppard’s script for the 1998 movie, “Shakespeare in Love,” the 16th century crowd particularly liked the dog, Crab, Shakespeare includes among his dramatis personae. Audiences at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival are just as taken by the pooch, Duncan, named for the king in the Scottish play, in this entertainingly easygoing production of “TGV.” And for good reason. Duncan is quite a scene stealer, even ad libbing a nice soothing scratch while his owner, Launce, played by Scott Greer, relates how badly Crab behaved at dinner and how he, Launce, took beatings as he whisked him from a Duke’s dining hall to spare Crab from whipping or worse.

See, an adorable animal always wins!  Even I am giving Duncan billing over one of my favorite actors, Greer!

The PSF production of “Two Gentleman” is a breezy amiable affair the quality of which depends on who is speaking at a specific moment. Director Matt Pfeiffer’s entire staging keeps matters light and maintains the straightforwardness Shakespeare ordained for the play. Most everyone does a fine job with his or her character, but a few actors excel over their castmates at working with Elizabethan cadences and make their speeches more fluid and conversational. Scenes with Luigi Sottile, who plays Valentine, a man who denigrates love as a folly unsuited to him until he leaves Verona for Milan and meets the enticing Silvia, and Peter DeLaurier, who plays the Duke who employs Valentine and is the father of Silvia, play with an intensity and smoothness that set them apart from other passages. Sottile and DeLaurier have a gift for making Shakespearean patois sound like their natural, everyday speech. Their exchanges have weight others on the PSF stage, though playing their roles well, cannot muster. Whether Valentine and the Duke are allied and speaking as friends, whether the Duke is baiting Valentine to elicit information that will be self-incriminating, or whether the pair is at odds and disappointedly sparring verbally, Sottile and DeLaurier bring the gambit to a level that makes it compelling and immediate. Others, Greer among them, do well with their dialogue and their characters, but they don’t dominate the stage and command attention as Sottile and DeLaurier do.

Sottile is particularly important because he energizes the stage. His Valentine has a dash and swagger that says he is a man of the world who will deal honestly with all he encounters. There is probity in his bearing and purpose in his movement. When Sottile’s Valentine says he loves Silvia, you believe him and want his romance to be successful. Pfeiffer’s production is paced animatedly enough, but dramatic intensity and action accelerate when Sottile enters. He turns his scenes, and the production, from competent and workaday to vibrant and involving.

DeLaurier brings a tone of elegance to the production. Though mild in manner, he is a Duke to be reckoned with. You see his calm way of making Valentine admit he intends to steal away from court with Silvia against his, the Duke’s wishes. DeLaurier does more with subtlety and cunning than most actors would do with anger or bluster. His way is courtly yet authoritative. He has power, so he doesn’t need to show power, only to exercise it. Like Valentine, who, throughout his questioning, never lies, the Duke is sincere. You respect what he wants for his daughter, to marry a rich nobleman named Thurio, even if you disagree with choice, and want him to receive what he expects from those around him, loyalty and obedience. DeLaurier conveys these traits without ever seeming despotic or unreasonable. That is why you feels some empathy for him when you know he is about to be betrayed, even though you are on the side of the lovers, Valentine and Silvia.

Truth is the main subject of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Shakespeare demonstrates true love by contrasting it with false love and forced love. He shows the bounds of friendship by making one character true to the brotherly bond he bears his companion since childhood while the other is willing to double-cross his lifelong buddy to gain an advantage in the pursuit of romance. He also shows the purifying nature of true redemption and true forgiveness.

If truth is the primary subject, love is the primary theme. Valentine’s friend since boyhood, Proteus, protests that love is more valuable than gaining education and experience by seeing the world and testing one’s mettle in worthy employment. He says he is too in love with his betrothed, Julia, to leave Verona to broaden his outlook or improve his fortune. Love, to Proteus, is everything while Valentine sees love as an obstacle, a burden that infatuates and limits a man’s ability to lead a large and noble life.

For the Duke, love is not as important as position. He is not interested in what Silvia may or not feel for Thurio, just as he doesn’t notice that Thurio craves Silvia for her position as much as the Duke favors Thurio for his wealth. Even Launce, Proteus’s servant that Shakespeare bills as “clownish,” comments on love. He expresses real affection for his dog, Crab, and speaks of how he takes the blame and beatings when Crab raises a leg at an inopportune moment or causes some other commotion. He also talks about marrying a toothless woman with foul breath when he finds out she has money.

Love needs definition in “Two Gentlemen.” It needs to find its course and does so in the relationship between Valentine and Silvia.

Proteus, on the other hand, lives up to his name as one who will switch stories to disregard or escape a truth he doesn’t accept by being treacherous to the woman he professes to love above all others, Julia, the friend he claims to embrace above all others, Valentine, the employer to whom he’s sworn fealty, the Duke, and a gull he’s promised insincerely to help in his quest for Silvia, Thurio.

Shakespeare, in this nascent play, is already showing the perspicacity that keeps him in current favor 450 years after his birth and about 425 years after writing “TGV.”

Pfeiffer and cast are adept at setting all plot mechanisms afoot and keeping them clear. Situations, from Julia acting the opposite of what she feels when Proteus first woos her, to complications, Valentine being banned from Milan for being caught planning to abscond with a complicit Silvia, are neatly presented and entertaining. You get involved with the plot as much as with all Shakespeare has to say about his various themes. The PSF company even keep some the extended pun sequences from being overly tedious.

So all goes smoothly and amusingly , with high points when Sottile and/or DeLaurier is included in a sequence.

Zack Robidas is a solid Proteus. He plays his character’s duplicity well, the scenes in which he is taken into Valentine’s confidence and in which he betrays that confidence to the Duke, being especially good.

Robidas tends to let Shakespeare’s lines to the work for him. His Proteus speaks of ardor, but Robidas shows little, when discussing Julia at the top of the production. You don’t see him moony, or “metamorphosed,” as Proteus claims to be. He professes instant love for Silvia and is seen wooing her, but you don’t quite believe he has his heart and soul in the enterprise to the extent Proteus feels compelled and justified in selling out Valentine to the Duke and perpetrating his ruse with Thurio. The actor keeps all basic, so his work is acceptable and serves the play but has no fire or passion in it.

I mentioned voices as one criterion of quality for this production. Although both Marnie Schulenberg as Silvia and Nicole Erb as Julia earn respect and become appealing in their roles as Pfeiffer’s production proceeds, neither makes a good first impression with the timbre and rhythm of their speech. Their voices have no music, no tone of culture to denote the station Silvia and Julia each has in her city’s society.

Once one gets accustomed to the flatness of the women’s voices and come to regard the actresses as Silvia and Julia, matters improve. Both Schulenberg and Erb can adeptly play her character. Erb is actually moving in the scene when she confides to her servant, Lucetta, that she is lovesick and plans to go to Milan disguised as a lad to be with Proteus. Schulenberg is effective at showing haughtiness towards Thurio and disdain for Proteus, even as she gives him her portrait, while reserving affectionate looks for Sottile’s Valentine. Classical diction needn’t sound like recitation or be exaggerated, but it is different from common speech. Schulenberg and Erb would do well to work with a coach on the level of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s legendary Cicely Berry if they intend to continue appearing in Shakespearean plays.

Alex Bechtel has and provides a good time as Thurio. He plays him as a veritable peacock, a preening fop who is not only vain, as Silvia calls him, but in Bechtel’s hands is fey, if not something that rhymes with it.

Bechtel endows his Thurio with more character traits than his castmates exhibit. When he walks down steps, he bends his elbows upwards , holds his raised thumbs just to the side of his armpits, and bounces with each elbow moving up and down in turn. When Thurio is praised, Bechtel strikes a proud pose. When he’s disparaged, Bechtel pouts. When someone mentions Thurio fighting, Bechtel assumes a distasteful expression and a cowering posture. His choices are funny and telling. They more be bigger and more stylized than any other character’s in this production, but they work just the same.

Scott Greer has some magnificent solo scenes as Launce, whose backwards philosophy comments eloquently on the shenanigans of the nobles and gentlefolk in “TGV.”

Greer has a comic’s timing and a professor’s way of explaining a point, even while playing a loutish clown.

Although upon each of Greer’s entrances, Duncan, as Crab, elicits oohs, ahs, and other expressions babies and cute pooches receive, the actor hold his own playing opposite his canine co-star. Eyes may initially be on Duncan, but ears, and eventually eyes, move towards Greer because he is so engaging and funny as Launce.

Peter Danelski is an efficient and crafty Speed, servant to Valentine and more intelligent and observant than Launce. Brian McCann plays three minor parts well but is best as Eglamour, a swain who admires Silvia but abjures romance in memory of his late wife. Eglamour helps Silvia reunite with Valentine but skidaddles hastily when the two are faced with danger. McCann’s unmanly retreat makes this sequence particularly amusing.

Music is a major part of Pfeiffer’s production, but heaven only knows why. Both acts are introduced by Greer leading the ensemble in a blues, bluegrass, or hard rock (Pearl Jam) number that bears no relevance to the show at hand, diverting though they are. The musicians, Greer on guitar, Danelski on ukulele, and DeLaurier thumbing a cello like a bass or bowing it to add his instrument’s natural sonority, are skillful and entertaining,  but they are so much innocuous window dressing in terms of  any meaningful contribution to “TGV.”

Of course the musicians are put to good use when the sonnet, “Who is Silvia?,” is sung in serenade to that lady.

Samantha Vieth’s set is as basic as Pfeiffer’s staging, open and versatile to accommodate all the necessary situations and settings. Marla Jurglanis’s costumes range from a country bumpkin suit for Greer to requisite blouses and doublets for most the cast. Her outfit for the foppish Thurio is witty. Her suit for DeLaurier is handsome and befitting of the Duke’s station. Her masterpiece is fashioning a camouflaging cloak for Sottile that is perfect for its dramatic purpose within “TGV.”

One more note about Duncan. This adorable and wonderfully trained dog was scheduled for euthanasia before being rescued and adopted by Kim Pike, who with the help of Ali Brown, of the nonprofit organization, Great Companions, trained him and cured him of the behavior problems that led to his near death sentence. Thank goodness for Kim being there in time to save Duncan’s life and training him to be so pliable he can respond to cues from Scott Greer that tell him when to make the cute moves that win the PSF audience’s hearts. Kim, who I met outside of the Labuda Theatre Complex as she was taking Duncan home, told me Duncan is a ham who loves the audience’s attention and will miss it, and Greer, when “TGV” closes.  Quick! Let’s find another play that requires a dog. Someone with Duncan’s talents should not remain unemployed!!!

“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” runs through Sunday, July 13 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in the Labuda Theatre Complex at DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, in Center Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. An additional performance is set for 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 6. No show is scheduled for Friday, July 4. Tickets range from $53 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 610-282-WILL (610-282-9455) or by going online to www.pashakespeare.org.

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