Thanks to director Scott Bellis, silent woman make the loudest statement in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Warning: I’m going to give away some major plot points here, but I will not give away what makes their realization so wonderful in this production.
This comedy is famously problematic because of its bizarre treatment of an attempted rape. Proteus and Valentine, the eponymous two gentlemen, value their friendship so highly that, when Proteus sexually assaults Silvia, who is the object of Valentine’s romantic aspirations, Valentine is enraged, but only for about 20 seconds. When Proteus begs his forgiveness, Valentine not only bestows it, he also jovially offers Silvia to his friend “All that was mine in Silvia I give to thee.” But Proteus chooses Julia, the woman he previously abandoned to pursue Silvia. As the men celebrate their acquisitions, the women stay mute.
As I promised, I won’t reveal how Bellis unties this knot, but it’s masterful—both comic in its broader contextualization and moving in its culmination. Bellis’s choices make for an artistically thrilling finale.
The rest of the evening is an odd mix, a bag that contains both jewels and potatoes.
The script itself is thin. The story starts in provincial Verona, where Valentine mocks his buddy Proteus for being smitten with Julia. Claiming that he is unsusceptible to romance, Valentine heads off to the big city of Milan, where he promptly falls in love with Silvia. When Proteus follows Valentine to Milan, he too falls in love with the Milanese beauty. None of this really matters, though; the characters are shallow and there are no immediate consequences to their actions.
Then Julia disguises herself as a boy and risks her father’s wrath by following Proteus to Milan. When that happens, the play’s emotional stakes suddenly spike. Proteus is a feckless jerk and, when we see him betraying Julia right in front of her, it hurts. This emotional resonance doesn’t arise until after the intermission in this Bard on the Beach production, however.
By the time intermission rolls around, this Two Gentlemen is getting boring, partly because the broad comic tone that Bellis establishes off the top only works about half of the time.
Bellis has altered the text in several places. Sometimes that works—when one of the characters refers to excised anti-Semitism, for instance, and suggests that audience members with a taste for that sort of thing might want to attend Bard’s The Merchant of Venice, for instance. Other changes, including the introduction of second-rate puns and lines like “Oh, go suck an egg!” simply thud. And the comic characterizations are uneven.
There are two clowns, Proteus’s servant Launce, and Valentine’s servant, Speed. Andrew Cownden, who is playing Launce, is one of the most inspired and experienced comic actors in town, and here, he’s working with a gifted natural talent, a basset hound named Gertie who has been cast in the immortal role of Launce’s dog, Crab. The scenes between Launce and Crab are famous because they rely on the unmatchable ability of canines to deadpan. When Cownden’s Launce moans, “I think Crab my dog be the sourest-natured dog that lives”, all Gertie has to do is stare at the audience like an exasperated Jack Benny and she brings the house down. This dog bit has stayed funny for over 400 years. And Cownden knows how to play the room, how to keep things easy and fresh.
Chirag Naik, who is a much younger actor, has less success as Speed. Whereas Cownden appears to be discovering the specificities of the text as he speaks them, Naik infuses his lines with generalized and deliberate sprightliness. Bellis may be going for contrast between the laconic Launce and the speedy Speed, but it feels like Naik is working too hard.
In the early going, most of the other comic scenes take place between Proteus and Julia. Although Bellis leans heavily into the characters’ foolishness, Charlie Gallant still manages to apply the light touch of inspiration. When his Proteus sobs, for instance, he vocalizes his stuttering intakes of breath and it’s very funny. Kate Besworth (Julia), on the other hand, has grasped the general idea of exaggeration, but she hangs onto it too tightly; her performance lacks the infectious playfulness of Gallant’s.
Besworth’s work improves significantly when Julia arrives in Milan and discovers that she is being betrayed: with more serious stakes to play, she rises to the occasion.
Throughout, Nadeem Phillip’s Valentine is the emotional centre of this production. In a reading in which the performance style is generally showy, Phillip’s restraint and authenticity make him stand out. Adele Noronha makes straightforward sense of Silvia.
And then there’s the physical production. Mara Gottler’s romantic early-nineteenth-century costumes are exquisite. I’m thinking of Valentine’s long, brown-leather coat, for instance: all lovers should come clothed in something that elegant. And there are surprises in Marshal McMahen’s Italianate set: I loved it when the green shutters in the Veronese towers were replaced by glittering Milanese chandeliers, for instance. And, when Valentine is banished from Milan for pursuing Silvia and hides in the forest, that forest is exquisitely evoked with (wheeled) trees from McMahen and verdant lighting from Adrian Muir. Sound designer Julie Casselman also makes a major contribution in a score that evokes everything from anxious heartbeats to courtly masques.
The greatest pleasures in this production come from its biggest artistic risks. Bellis makes extensive use of choreographed sequences provided by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. In the opener, Proteus and Valentine tussle like puppies. Valentine and Silvia progress from a formal dance that’s fueled by suppressed eroticism to a duet that’s an orgy of unrestrained caresses.
Boldly, Bellis makes a band of brigands into cross-dressing women. And then there’s that ending that I was talking about.
You don’t often get a chance to see The Two Gentlemen of Verona; it’s rarely produced. And this one contains more jewels than potatoes.
THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA By William Shakespeare. Directed by Scott Bellis. A Bard on the Beach production on the Howard Family Stage on Wednesday, July 12. Continues in rep until September 17.
To purchase tickets go to https://bardonthebeach.org/tickets, or phone 604-739-0559.