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A CurtainUp Review
The Two Gentlemen of Verona

I think Crab my dog be the most sourest-natured dog that lives: my mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands and all our house in a great perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear. —Lance
2 Gentlemen of Verona Crab (Candide Devin) and Lance (Alexandra Devin)
(Photo: Deb Failla)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is widely viewed as Shakespeare's weakest comedy. But that clearly hasn't kept the Judith Shakespeare Company from mounting it at the TBG Theatre. Their new production is in the key of hilarious fun. Smartly directed by Joanne Zipay, the evening retains the Bard's traditional language but adds a post-modern twist with its reverse-gender casting.

Shakespeare was experimenting with the genre of comedy when he wrote Two Gentlemen and nd Zipay subtly parodies the Bard's themes of male friendship, heterosexual love, and romantic betrayal with her castng. Seeing Valentine (Rachael Hip-Flores) and Proteus (Sheila Joon) played by female actors, and Silvia (Hunter Gilmore) and Julia (Alvin Chan) conversely played by male actors flips the traditional Elizabethan practice of men dressing up as women, and it works to fine effect.

Here's a brief outline of the key events and characters: Proteus and Valentine are best friends, each embarking on their careers. Valentine departs to Milan to serve the Emperor there, leaving Proteus behind with his sweetheart Julia in Verona. When Proteus visits Valentine in Milan he discovers that his friend has fallen in love with the beautiful Silvia. Proteus, infatuated with a picture of Sylvia, forsakes Julia. Unwilling to give up Proteus, the loyal Julia disguises herself as Sebastian, ollows Proteus and enters his service. The romantic triangle of Valentine, Proteus, and Silvia plays out as a sort of love cartoon, with love letters circulating among the characters. While it all seems light and frothy fare, the play also contains two of Shakespeare's most controversial scenes: the attempted rape of Silvia and Valentine's suddenly forgiving Proteus at the end.

Shakespeare borrowed his story from several sources, including Jorge de Montemajor's romantic tale Diana. There's ample evidence that he also leaned on Ovid, John Lyly, and the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son to achieve his dramatic effects. Naturally, Shakespeare broadened the scope of his sources and invented his own characters (Speed, Lance, and his immortal dog Crab) for their sheer entertainment value and to act as brilliant foils and commentators to the central characters.

In spite of its plot inconsistencies, unreliable geography, and characters' absurdities, nobody should sell this drama short. After all, the play has Shakespeare's best non-speaking part in the dog Crab. In fact, one renowned scholar, Bert States, noted that Crab's enduring charm was the phenomenon of having "a real dog on an artificial street." Beyond dogdom, Shakespeare humanized his apprentice comedy with the character Lance, his earliest clown. Shakespeare opened a fresh vein of comedy in Lance, a part that he likely created for his gifted actor Will Kemp. To be sure, Costard (Love's Labour's Lost) and Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream) are the Bard's more celebrated clowns. But the humble, self-sacrificing Lance anticipates both of these rustics.

Although many of Zipays' dramatic choices in this production are admirable, it's overly long. The most exciting scenes are arguably the later ones, and with the show stretching nearly 3 hours, you might find yourself, as I did, shifting in your seat for the final scenes.

No doubt the one conspicuous star turn is : Candide's Crab which bests all the human actors onstage. With a deadpan reminiscent of Buster Keaton, this Crab (of an indeterminate breed) is a born dog actor. And if you want to see this adorable canine's talent on the big screen, catch his cameo performance in J-Lo's new movie, where he's featured walking and peeing in the park.

Shifting to the human actors, there are also strong performances in this thirteen-member cast. The natural acting of Alexandra Devin as Lance, is quite apropos for her homespun monologues. Bill Galarno, doubling as Lucetta and Outlaw 3, is crisp and lively in both his roles. And Hunter Gilmore, as Silvia, oddly succeeds by delivering a non-sentimental portrayal of his goddess-like character. The rest of the cast are snug enough in their parts (several actors doubling as Outlaws and other minor roles). And considering that articulating Shakespeare's language is no easy task, you must applaud the concerted efforts of this ensemble. And, oh yes. Austin Moorhead, the virtuoso guitar player who remains onstage throughout, provides original music that neatly fits the production's upbeat mood and atmosphere.

This is the company's first full Shakespearean production in six years. Although they have presented many staged readings of Shakespeare's works since 1995, and staged a contemporary play (Paul Hagen's The Rape of the Lock) for their "Resurgence" project in 2008, this Two Gentlemen returns the company to its original mission: to bring Shakespeare's language to life with clarity and vitality, while expanding the presence of women in classical theater.

Granted, Two Gentlemen may never become your pet Shakespeare play. But with Lance's pet dog Crab in high comic form here, and his Master's moving monologues to bolster the comedy's weak points, this production can steal your heart.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Joanne Zipay
Cast: Rachael Hip-Flores (Valentine), Sheila Joon (Proteus), Alvin Chan (Julia), Hunter Gilmore (Silvia), Bill Galarno (Lucetta, Outlaw 3), Suzanne Hayes (Speed), Alexandra Devin (Lance), Candide (Crab), Marie Bridget Dundon (Duke of Milan), Amy Dreisler (Turio), Natash Austin Moorhead (Guitar Player) Natasha Yannacanedo (Antonio, Sir Eglamour, Outlaw 2), Peggy Suzuki (Pantino, Host, Outlaw 1).
Sets: Joshua David Bishop
Costumes: Ashley Betton
Composer: Austin Moorhead
Lighting: Lois Catanzaro
Production Stage Manager: Sandra M. Bloom
TBG Theatre at 312 W. 36th Street (at 8th Avenue), 212/868-4444
Tickets: $25
From 8/04/10; closing 8/22/10.
Tuesday through Saturday @ 8pm; Sunday @ 2pm; with additional 7pm performances on 8/08 and 8/15; and an additional 3pm performance on 8/21
Running time: 2 hours and 55 minutes including a 10 minute intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on August 5th press performance
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