The setup: The Two Gentlemen of Verona is second-tier Shakespeare, a romantic comedy that is neither romantic nor a comedy. Instead, it is primarily a character study of male bonding, and of betrayal of friendship. It takes place in Verona and Milan, but has been updated to make Verona St. Louis and Milan Los Angeles, and the time the early 1930's.
Valentine (Crash Buist) and Proteus (Kyle Curry) portray best buds who are parted as Valentine is off to Hollywood, where he falls in love with Silvia (Kiara Feliciano), a movie star. Proteus stays to woo Julia (Amelia Fischer), but later proceeds to Hollywood himself. Here he falls in love with Silvia, and schemes to undermine Valentine and gain her for himself.
Making Silvia a film star permits some glamorous settings and some interesting tableaux of movies being made. A suitor for Silvia's hand, Thurio (David Huynh) is co-starring with her in a film. Feliciano is beautiful and Huynh is handsome and fit, and both look great in bathing suits while filming a beach scene.
The good news is that the comical character of Lance, servant to Valentine, is played by Kevin Lusignolo. Lusignolo is droll, with the sly deadpan wit that is one of Shakespeare's trademarks, and he steals the show, capturing a comic timing and an authenticity that is remarkably absent elsewhere. He is accompanied by his dog Crab (George Honey Fitz Spelvin), a scene-stealer himself. Lance's love for Crab is the closest the play comes to true passion.
There are a few musical numbers scattered through the play, and they add considerable interest. The play opens with a chanteuse singing "It's a sin to tell a lie". While the later songs are fine, the singer here apparently has zero idea of what the words mean, and spends the song posing. This note of artificiality, a polite word for "fake", unfortunately turns out to be prophetic.
The costumes by Paige Wilson are interesting and attractive, and Silvia's dressing gown is a triumph. Set designer Laura Hawkes did a wonderful job with a desert scene - it looked like New Mexico - but Silvia's dressing room had no upstage wall, seen clearly through several door openings. It occurred to me that this unprofessional aspect might be deliberate, a way of tipping off the audience that the entire shebang was artificial.
A major problem is the performances of the leads, as directed by Brendon Fox. Feliciano as Silvia is so shrill as to be obnoxious, Buist as Valentine is so stolid and his delivery so uninflected as to be boring, Fischer as Julia, in a bad wig, seems pinched and unappetizing, and Curry races through his lines, substituting rising a register for interpretation. The result is that no one seems a candidate for a romantic relationship, and would hardly qualify for a one-night stand, unless one had the 3 a.m. barroom blues.
Mirron Willis as the Duke, Silvia's father, begins with some light-hearted poise, but later lapses into shouting. Huynh as Thorio has the range to charm, but the script requires him to be angry instead. It may be that director Fox was so involved with updating the play to make it semi-contemporary that he ignored grounding it in reality. There is a would-be chase scene in the desert that falls flat, and a curious moment when Silvia beckons Proteus into her dressing room and he instead picks up a bongo drum to join the band.
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It reminded me of a classic moment on television, when David Susskind was interviewing Shelley Winters, and coming on to her. Cutting through the palaver, Winters said: "Tell me, are you one of those talkers, or do you want some action?" The direction here makes Proteus a talker.
This production has failed to solve the problems of the play, though it has added interest in several key areas. The play's chief success was as a rock musical on Broadway in 1971, winning the Tony Award as Best Musical, with strong leads and, believe it or not, Stockard Channing and Jeff Goldblum in the chorus. The verdict:
One of Shakespeare's weaker plays still has its moments of magic, and an updated production adds some borrowed interest by making Silvia a movie star, making for a pleasant, though not hilarious, evening.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona continues through August 3, 5, 7 and 9, at 8:30 p.m., at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive, 281-373-3386, houstonfestivalscompany.com.