Artwork by David Huber.
BOTTOM LINE: A delightful commedia dell'arte inspired production of Shakespeare's first comedy, with a cross-gender twist.
Judith Shakespeare Company, whose mission is to expand the presence of women in classical theater, has fulfilled this aim while delightfully fulfilling the themes of the play in their current production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Considered by most scholars to be Shakespeare's first play, Two Gentlemen is a frothy exploration of what would become Shakespeare's enduring comedic interests, as well as his first foray into his well-known device of star-crossed lovers hiding in cross-gender garb.
This production does Shakespeare's gender-play one better with a complete gender-reversal of the cast; that is to say, men play all the women's roles and women play all the men's roles. This beautifully highlights Shakespeare's exploration of the fickleness of the love of some, and the depth of devotion of others, regardless of sex and gender. It also underscores the artifice of the play. In this early work, the debt Shakespeare owes to the tradition of commedia dell'arte is especially clear. Director Joanne Zipay has chosen to embrace this legacy in her production. She clearly gave full license to her supporting cast to create big, clown-like characters, and the play is thoroughly enlivened because of it. The enduring 'magic of theatre' in large part exists in the pleasure of watching actors play multiple roles one after the other, without a break in the trailer, a different shooting date, or any of the other cushions that make the same feat in a television or film actor no big woop. Natasha Yannacanedo and Peggy Suzuki in particular transform themselves into four or five characters each, providing a super-fun, non-stop parade of clowns that offsets the earnestness of the two pairs of lovers around which the play centers.
The most famous characters in the play are Lance and his dog Crab. Lance, Proteus' servant, is a dog-crossed lover, who falls into ecstasy or despair depending on how much attention he is getting from his infamous cur. Lance and Crab are played perfectly by Alexandra Devin and her dog Candide. There is a well-known saying among actors that you should never go onstage with a live animal, because the audience will watch the dog and not you. But Alexandra, who has strong character-acting chops and an interesting, expressive face, holds her own against her pup (though he is pretty darn cute).
It is a fairly low-risk proposition to do gender-reversal casting for the supporting roles of a play, but it is pretty risky business to do it for the leads, especially if you are directing them to create moments of sincerity and depth. Zipay does just this, and manages to make it work. Although Alvin Chan plays his early scenes as Julia as a parody of a princess in a love-induced tizzy, as the play progresses he portrays Julia's wounded heart with honesty and insight. Hunter Gilmore turns in a gorgeously nuanced portrayal of Silvia. He is vulnerable and feminine without ever seeming to pander or play to stereotypes; one never doubts his understanding of his character, including her uniquely feminine experiences.
Rachel Hip-Flores and Sheila Joon as Valentine and Proteus respectively, play it straight throughout the play. Their characterizations of the young gentlemen are understated; their portrayals focus on the reality of the inner-lives of their characters, rather than the external characteristics of being guys. This choice worked well, though each woman might have had a little more fun playing her man.
The simple set, made up of blocks, a folding screen, and a ladder (which was used to great effect in several scenes), along with the classical guitar played by Austin Moorhead between scenes, enhanced the feeling that we were watching a traveling troupe of commedia dell'arte players, and in some ways I would have preferred to have seen the production en plein air than in a theater. There was something incongruous about the street-player style of the show and the confines of the theater. However, the production is designed to travel to schools, and it will translate very well to the multi-purpose room.
Overall, Zipay and her troupe of actors have created a production filled with theatrical exuberance and joy. Whether in the theater or the schools, the production is the perfect introduction to Shakespeare's first comedy.
(Two Gentlemen of Verona plays at TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, through August 22nd. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm (no 3pm performance on 8/14), and Sunday at 2pm and 7pm (no 7pm performance on 8/22). Tickets are $25 ($10 student rush) and are available at smarttix.com or by calling 212.868.4444. Call 212.592.1885 for group reservations. For more information visit www.judithshakespeare.org.)