Setting a production outdoors is an act of theatrical bravery that places both actors and audiences at the tender mercies of wildlife, weather, and aviation. Bare Theatre raised those already elevated stakes by placing its current Shakespearean tour in conspicuously public urban spaces across the region over the last month.
Outside the North Carolina Museum of History, one opening weekend performance of Two Gentlemen of Verona was interrupted by a horse-drawn wedding party in cream-and-turquoise tuxes, a footrace of men in red dresses protesting HB 2, and a silent, surreal procession of tourists on Segway scooters. The following week saw an even fiercer urban-Shakespeare mash-up in a downtown Raleigh "parklet" where performers contended with noisy pedestrian and vehicle traffic on Hargett Street.
In these cases, the wonder was that the production worked at all. But it did work, despite the necessity for actors to watch out for passersby while surfing a city soundscape of dogs, sirens, car horns, and diesel engines. For that alone, the cast deserved a medal of valor, even though some characters and scenes remained underdeveloped.
When we looked in on the production last weekend in Chapel Hill, the ensemble had fleshed out some of the show's thinner bits. But director G. Todd Buker still hadn't solved the major problem in one of Shakespeare's earliest—and least distinguished—comedies. Indeed, this production gives us a clear idea of why Two Gentlemen of Verona is so rarely produced.
Yes, there's engaging wordplay among lovers Valentine (a crisp Greta Zandstra, whose cross-gender casting explains the quotation marks around "Gentlemen" on the show's poster) and Sylvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan (a sharp and charming Vera Varlamov). Verbal jousting and jesting come from saucy servants Lucetta (Courtney Christison); Panthino (a kinetic Pimpila Violette); Speed (Dustin Britt, in sassy-gay-friend mode); and the lugubrious Launce (a hammy Sara Leone).
But Shakespeare clearly fumbles in this script as he pursues a decidedly noncomic proposition: How much bad can a young man do and still be considered even remotely good—or worthy of redemption, at least?
As a result, Two Gentlemen ends up reading, for all the world, like a sixteenth-century Adam Sandler film. If you think I exaggerate, judge for yourself: Central character Proteus (a game Matt Fields) is a rich kid and a consummate heel. After meeting and falling for Valentine's girlfriend, Proteus places his lifelong best friend in danger by alerting the Duke (a fumbling Wayne Burtoft) to their elopement plans. In his boorish, bootless pursuit of Sylvia, Proteus isn't merely faithless to his supposed love, Julia (the winsome newcomer Rebecca Jones). He offers the ring Julia gave him to Sylvia instead. When she spurns Proteus's advances, he ultimately tries to take Sylvia's affections by force.
As the gears grind, you can all but hear a young Shakespeare mutter to himself, "Yeah, but how do I keep him likeable? And is it actually still a comedy?" It's unclear that the fledgling Bard ever figured out workable answers to those questions. And if the playwright didn't, it's more understandable that Buker doesn't.
Shakespeare rescues matters only through a 180-degree plot twist deep in the fifth act. With no justification in the script, the novice playwright then basically leaves the actors and director to sell it on their own. Despite an imaginative contemporary frame, with actors rapping Shakespeare's songs and Proteus checking texts on his iPhone, that didn't happen in this production.
Fields's Proteus remains a cipher whose motivations and changing ethics seem a matter of sheer caprice. His instant redemption in the eyes of Valentine, Sylvia, and Julia in the final act is wholly unsupported.
Nor does the production believably explicate Julia's truly masochistic complicity in her own humiliation. After she awkwardly disguises herself as a B-boy and apprentices herself to Proteus, he tasks Julia with offering Sylvia the ring she'd given him earlier. Though it all takes place on stage, I'm still unable to tell you why.
After Proteus's brief and unconvincing penance in the final act, my skin crawled when Valentine joined Proteus's hands with Julia's and called for an immediate double wedding. "Not so fast," I thought, about a script and a show that strip their gears when baseness, treachery, and near-rape give way to universal amity and virtue—in ninety seconds, more or less.
Even as these misgivings rose during the first four acts, I still found reasons to believe. Varlamov sparkled as she verbally jousted with an unsuitable suitor, Thurio (a suave, comic Bobby Simcox). But it was the unsolved—and possibly unsolvable—theatrical riddle in the script's fifth act, and not some encroaching urban reality, that ultimately shattered suspension of disbelief beyond repair. With a concept as promising as free Shakespeare for the public, I sincerely wish it had been otherwise.
Correction: Due to an error in the production's playbill, this review originally misidentified the actor playing Proteus. Matt Fields plays the role, not Sean Powell.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bare Necessities"