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The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Two Gentlemen of Verona isn’t Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, with good reason. Generally believed to be a very early work, Two Gentlemen often plays like a warm-up exercise in the tropes that the Bard would revisit later with more success. There’s a love triangle, unrequited passion, backstabbing, a cross-dressing woman, a funny servant, high-born protagonists taking to the woods because life at court is such a bummer, and a happy ending that feels unearned after what just unfolded. It also has paper-thin characters with puzzling motivations. If any of this dissuades you from seeing the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival’s new production, well, you’re probably not the right audience anyway.
Two Gentlemen, as directed by Charles Fee, concerns two guys—I’d argue only one is a gentleman—from the J. Crew summer catalog who fall for the same girl. Valentine (Neil Brookshire) journeys to Milan—which he pronounces “Millen,” perhaps in homage to an embattled former Detroit Lions GM—and meets Silvia (Nika Ericson). Valentine’s buddy Proteus (Jeffrey C. Hawkins) stays in Verona to woo Julia (Lee Stark).
When Proteus’ father turns him out, he hits Milan, crushes on Silvia, and immediately sells out his best friend for a crack at her, even though he was recently rolling around on the floor enraptured with Julia. Proteus does get his name from a shape-shifting Greek God, so Shakespeare sort of telegraphed his capricious nature. Such is life in Shakespearean Italy. Just ask Romeo about his true love, Rosaline.
Valentine ends up living in the forest, leading a band of outlaws, you know, like you do. The Milan-bound Julia pulls her hair back and everyone thinks she’s a guy, because that’s how these things go. Silvia turns out empathetic and decent, which is surprising because she looks totally bitchy in a tight black dress and stiletto heels when we first meet her. I for one learned an important lesson about being judgy. I also learned that contemporary adult pop music is maybe not the best choice for scene transitions, but chalk it up to personal preference.
All of this is fun, or at least it should be, but it doesn’t really matter. The Tahoe Shakespeare Festival banks on a formula of great setting + good production value + equity-level talent to sell tickets, and it has these things in spades. For some, that’s enough for a terrific evening. For those requiring more, Shakespeare’s unparalleled language will hopefully be enough to distract you from that fact that your stupid plastic chair is inexorably spilling you forward, because that’s what happens when you’re on a hill made of sand and subject to the laws of gravity.
The production’s most enjoyable characters are Speed (Laura Welsh Berg) and Launce (Kevin Crouch), the respective servants of the titular gents. For my money, Berg is the star of the show, but by the more objective audience chuckle-o-meter standard, Crouch is the runaway hero. After Valentine waxes poetic about love, Launce turns up extolling the virtues of his own crush: She can brew ale, she cleans, and she doesn’t talk much. Humorously contrasting idealism with practicality is vintage Shakespeare, and though this play can feel half-baked, these flashes of brilliance remind us why every state still has these festivals 400 years later. Also, Launce has an awesome dog, which doesn’t hurt.
While the plot can induce eye rolling, and it’s a little jarring when things get rapey near the end—seriously, how is this comedy not more popular?—the poetic language should ultimately win out and make your evening.