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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Jolly Follies: The Two Gentlemen of Verona opens at Stratford

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Dean Gabourie
Featuring Dion Johnstone, Claire Lautier, Gareth Potter and Sophia Walker
Photos by David Hou

The story: First boy loves first girl and is scorned for it by second boy. Second boy leaves to make his fortune and promptly falls in love himself with second girl. First boy declares undying love to first girl, they exchange rings and a tearful good-bye as first boy goes to make his fortune with second boy. First boy promptly forgets first girl and friendship with second boy as he declares his love for second girl, and schemes to win her by getting second boy banished. First girl, missing first boy, disguises herself as third boy to surprise him, but is instead surprised and heartbroken to discover first boy’s inconstant heart. Second girl, missing second boy, runs away from home to find second boy, and is captured by bandits and first boy before all lovers are happily (?) reunited.

This is early Shakespeare, so early one might wish to believe it was written by someone hoping to copy the immortal Bard’s style and failing miserably. But Bill had to start somewhere, and Two Gentlemen of Verona has seeds of his later brilliance; but there is no doubt it is a silly play, with silly characters, and it is no wonder it is so seldom performed.

In this production we are treated to a 1920’s vaudeville show – the actors are old-time stage stars with their own acts (of which we get glimpses), they always seem aware us in the audience, and we get to see their lives behind the curtains, as it were.

Associate director Dean Gabourie’s decision to frame the play as a vaudevillian performance is nothing to sneeze at, and it works for two reasons: 1) the one-dimensional aspect of the characters allows for a silent-film-like, melodramatic treatment (complete with tinkling pianos in the background) and 2) the obvious enjoyment the actors get from being permitted a touch of melodrama reminds the audience to relax and not take the play too seriously – because you can’t, it is far too absurd. There is a reason that the bandits in the forest are made to resemble Charlie Chaplin (and later the Keystone Kops), or that the Duke (John Vickery) occasionally sounds like Snidely Whiplash, although Mr. Gabourie could have gone even broader with the metaphor.

The honourable Valentine and the dishonourable Proteus (the two gentlemen of the title) are portrayed by Dion Johnstone and Gareth Potter. It is a pleasure to see Mr. Johnstone cast as the nice-guy here, except it’s hard to conceive of him playing someone so dim-witted. Mr. Potter is not as degenerate a Proteus as he could be – a little too much charm and not enough smarm, perhaps. The troublesome near-rape scene is mild at best, but the problematic reconciliation scene is given weight by Proteus being on his knees, and Valentine looking to Silvia (Claire Lautier, right) for permission to forgive him, which she sanctions.

This is because Silvia is a character who always sees worth where it is due, as Ms. Lautier’s performance clearly indicates. She also allows Silvia to be a glamorous diva who gets what she wants, a temperamental daughter who does not get what she wants, and even a sympathetic “rival” who hopes Julia gets what she wants.

Sophia Walker (left) plays Julia first as a volatile actress who torments her maid Lucetta (Trish Lindstrom with a trace of Seana-McKenna-like archness), then as the disguised Sebastian. In fact, her scenes as Sebastian are more heartfelt and believable – Ms. Walker may slip from vaudevillian into Shakespeare by accident but it suits her better.

Finally, there are two scene-stealers in this production. Otto, a sleepy older basset hound who plays Crab to his owner Robert Persichini’s Launce is the predictable one, but the other is Stephen Russell as Sir Eglamour – a teeny, tiny part, but with a few waggling eyebrows and an “oh, madam!” here and there, Mr. Russell gives longevity and more than his fair share of laughter to this otherwise brief role.

Two Gentlemen of Verona is a pretty inane play, but this is possibly the best treatment of it you are ever likely to see. And as it is so rarely performed, grab your chance while you can, because it runs in repertory at the Studio Theatre only until September 19th.

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