We’d never seen The Two Gentlemen of Verona on stage and had no particular expectations, but it was easy to see that the Stratford Festival’s production was trying something new with it. It worked well, and we thought it was a lot of fun.
The plot of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is thin (even by the undemanding standards of Shakespeare comedies), the situations are formulaic, and some episodes don’t really have anything to do with the story. Director Dean Gabourie’s bright idea was to suppose that Shakespeare conceived Two Gentlemen as a variety show, with song-and-dance numbers, comedy skits, animal acts, and scenes from well-known plays, and so on. This sort of entertainment was apparently usual in the late sixteenth century, as it was 200 years later when Nicholas Nickleby joined Vincent Crummles’s troupe of players (see this recent Emsworth post; we’ve been reading Dickens) and through the vaudeville era (see this post).
In this show the two young “gentlemen” and the women they love appear as vaudeville performers; the show opens with bosom friends Proteus (Gareth Potter) and Valentine (Dion Johnstone) dancing in striped suits, tophats, and canes. Valentine is on his way to Milan to get on in life and make new friends; Proteus is content to stay in Verona because of his infatuation with Julia (Sophia Walker).
Once in Milan, Valentine promptly falls for Silvia (Caire Lautier), whose father wants to bestow her on another man, the wooden Sir Thurio (Timothy Stickney). When Proteus follows Valentine to Milan, he too falls in love with Silvia, forgetting all about Julia, with whom he exchanged rings before he left.
In this show the story moves along briskly despite interspersed songs and comic vignettes from the gentlemen’s servants, Speed and Launce, whose dog Crab is played by a lethargic, short-legged, decidedly male beagle. As a bonus, Mr. Gabourie throws in a melodramatic rendition of the murder of Desdemona from Othello, in which Timothy Stickney plays Sir Thurio playing Othello and Stacie Steadman plays Silvia playing Desdemona). This interpolation was purely Mr. Gabourie’s idea, but it’s undoubtedly Shakespearean (think of the play scene in Hamlet) and fully in the vaudeville tradition.
The entire cast is fine, but the characters we found the most fun were Julia’s mildly disrespectful maid (Trish Lindström), Silvia’s strutting, self-important father (John Vickery), the quipster Speed (Bruce Dow), who pronounces that “love is blind,” and the philosophical dog-owner Launce (Robert Persichini).
Despite its vaudevillian trappings, this production gives us Shakespeare’s language in full flower, especially as it comes from the mouths of Ms. Walker (Julia has the most poetic lines in the play) and Mr. Persichini, who delivers the play’s wonderful comic monologues to the dog Crab. (These really come alive in performance; the lines seem disjointed on the printed page.) One of the things that make some of the Shakespeare comedies difficult for some people, including Emsworth, is that the jokes tend to be based on wordplay involving words that aren’t part of our vocabulary anymore. But a reasonably acute playgoer is likely to “get” the puns and malapropisms of the comic characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as when Launce refers tells us he has received his “proportion,” like the “prodigious son.”
Several years ago, here in Rochester, we saw a community theater version of Edward Albee’s bizarre play The Goat, or Who is Silvia?, which is about a man who falls in love with a goat. We now realize for the first time that the title of the play was taken from a song Proteus sings under Silvia’s balcony, “Who Is Silvia.” But we still don’t get the connection.