Even William Shakespeare had to learn to walk before he could run. But from the least of his efforts there are still lessons to be learned.
“Two Gentlemen of Verona,” generally thought to be Shakespeare’s first play, explores what will become familiar themes in later works – but in halting and often tedious steps. Even in the hands of a talented cast and crew, the narrative seems to stand still more often than not.
“Two Gents” was one of several plays that opened American Players Theatre’s 2013 season on Father’s Day weekend. Touted as a comedy, it is only occasionally so. But that failing can’t be blamed on director Tim Ocel or APT’s new and veteran cast members.
Instead, we must blame the Bard. The nearly three-hour production trudges through familiar Shakespearean ground in a somewhat turgid trial run of the themes of love, betrayal and cross-dressing. As Elizabethan daytime drama peppered with adolescent angst, “Two Gents” is Shakespeare with training wheels, and we’re all along for the slow, sometimes bumpy ride.
The story, in short, involves the friendship between Valentine (Travis Knight) and Proteus (Marcus Truschinski), the two gents of the title, and their love for Silvia (Abbey Siegworth) and Julia (Susan Shunk). Misunderstandings, misdirected love letters and unwanted betrothals follow the gents to Milan, where a band of outlaws inexplicably makes Valentine their chief. Julia follows Proteus disguised as a boy. A hat and pair of black-rimmed glasses are apparently all that’s needed to disguise her identity and her gender.
Though the relative immaturity of this work shows, APT tries its best. Ocel moves his cast energetically along, and the principals all do a fine job. However, Nathan Stuber’s surprisingly minimalist set, the equivalent of a raised pier protruding from APT’s standard structural backdrop, fails to provide a needed visual context.
APT veteran Paul Bentzen makes an enjoyable, albeit brief appearance as Antonio, Proteus’ father. The Milwaukee Rep’s James Pickering makes his long-overdue APT debut as the Duke of Milan, adding texture and grace to what could easily have been a throwaway role.
But the stage belongs to Steve Haggard as Launce, Proteus’ clownish servant, and his dog Crab, played by Tim the German Shepherd. The human-canine duo breathes much-needed life into the production.
Launce mugs and cracks wise in a variety of voices, creating what must have been Shakespeare’s first truly inspired character. Haggard manages, without breaking character, to effectively interact with individual audience members in what becomes a virtual Shakespearean standup routine. Even the generally taciturn Tim the German Shepherd seems to respond on cue. The pair’s performance is almost worth the price of admission.
Although populated by Shakespeare’s smallest cast and considered by scholars to be his weakest play, “Two Gents” is the source work for themes and tropes that later became the Bard’s hallmarks. It’s a valuable study for those who want to understand the progression and maturation of those themes in Shakespeare’s later plays.