By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
A passing squirrel, who turned his back to the stage, was not convinced. And the wind whispering through the poplars sounded downright skeptical this weekend in the park when a lovestruck young man tore himself away from his beloved with protestations of fidelity.
“Here is my hand for my true constancy,” declared Proteus (Oscar Derkx) feelingly, with major sincere eye contact . “Let me ever dwell in thy remembrance.”
This clueless gentleman of Verona doesn’t realize it but his “constancy” will evaporate into thin air the moment he hits the hip party town of Milan down the road. And it’s a measure of the oddity of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the earliest of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, currently alternating with The Winter’s Tale at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, that the sweet sorrow of this parting is both mocked and surpassed by a scene in which the star has four legs (and a leash).
A tearful clown, Launce (Belinda Cornish) is barely suppressing histrionic sobs as he decries the hard-heartedness of his dog Crab (Alice Cornish-Meer). At his parting from the family in order to follow his gentleman employer Proteus to Milan, Launce reports (in the funniest monologue of the play) that his entire family, from mom right down to the cat, wept buckets. “Yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed one tear: he is a stone, a very pebblestone, and has no more pity in him than a dog….”
In an impressively understated deadpan performance, Alice’s Crab gazes impassively off into the mid-distance, rising neither to provocations from squirrel or gull, much less to the eye-watering temptations of iambic pentameter. There’s something a bit Smothers Bros. about this pair, the leash-er and the leash-ee, the lofty disdain of the one vs. the lugubrious rustic shrewdness of the other. They made me laugh hard.
True, there are classic comic riffs in The Two Gents: the futile male protestations against falling in love, the thwarted young lovers up against a choleric older generation (or each other), the comically unsuitable parentally-approved suitor in the wings, the jealous rival, the love triangle, the escape ruse…. But The Two Gents, which likely dates from the early 1590s (like The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, the Henry VI plays), hasn’t exactly had directors queuing up over the years; only Love’s Labours Lost had fewer productions before the 20th century. It’s not so much the set-up, in which two best friends fall, hard, for the same gal, that’s the sticking point, but the sour, cringe-worthy climax.
Having suddenly betrayed his own true-love Julia (Gianna Vacirca) and his best friend Valentine (Ben Stevens), Proteus tries to force himself on Valentine’s girlfriend Silvia (Patricia Cerra) for whom he’s developed an all-consuming infatuation. And when Proteus is caught out in these unappetizing manoeuvres, Valentine not only forgives him, but offers him Silvia, as a token of undying friendship. Hey, what are friends for?
Mostly contemporary productions emphasize boyish high spirits of a couple of male dim bulbs, their bumbling naivety in falling in love with love, so that bad behaviour can be redeemed or at least smoothed over. A comedy freighted with an attempted assault doesn’t exactly bob gaily across the bright blue sea of romance.
Kevin Sutley’s is a production that steps bravely up to show you why this is a play only rarely tackled. Instead of dallying in camouflage, it holds up both romance and comedy stereotypes for re-consideration, and finds them both a little wonky, with a bitter aftertaste. The two pals are enthusiastic demonstrative friends in a way that makes romance seem like a formal exercise by comparisons. Stevens as Valentine is a good-natured, warm-hearted lad, excited to go off and see the world instead of “living dully sluggardized at home” — and even more excited when he is “metamorphosed” by love. As counterpart, his buddy Proteus, in Derkx’s performance, is the more ticklish assignment, since he has to make a sudden conversion to out-and-out terrible behaviour seem possible.
He’s equipped with a couple of re-assessment speeches for the purpose. Still, what Derkx brings is a sense of amazement, of disbelief at his own apparently unstoppable capacity for being a jerk. How can his treacherous, cruel self be possible? Derek’s Proteus wonders, and then ploughs ahead, a mad glint in his eye.
Of the women of the play, Cerra’s Silvia is a spitfire, a portrait of exasperation at unwanted male advances. And she rejects Proteus’s increasingly gross advances with stinging rebukes at his faithless treachery. Julia, in Gianna Vacirca’s performance, is a bit of a flake, a sort of case study of the fate of the overwrought and besotted. The volatile woman who gets mad and rips up a love letter, then kisses the scraps, becomes the woman who remains devoted, beyond all reason. “His words are bonds, his oaths are oracles, his love sincere, his thoughts immaculate….” How wrong can one girl be?
The comic business of the play, enhanced by Megan Koshka’s vividly attractive party/ leisure costumes and Matt Skopyk’s amusing sound design, escalates with ace performances from Nathan Cuckow as a self-regarding ninny of a gentleman suitor, and a cameo from Chris Bullough as a military functionary who’s in love with his own soldier-ly right-angle moves. And the casting of both clowns, Cornish’s Launce and Speed (the excellent Bobbi Goddard) as women, who roll their eyes at the male folly around them, seems particularly à propos.
The men, or more precisely machismo attitudes, are targeted as ridiculous. In the end, in Sutley’s production, it’s the guys who make a great show of forgiving each other. The boys are reunited, best friends forever again, the one forgiven his transgressions and the other wanting to make a statement with his grand gestures of forgiveness. The Duke (Robert Benz) arrives and forgives a band of preposterous outlaws.
As for the women, the play’s sensible people? Ignored, possibly forgotten. And this production steps up to that fact with a tiny and forceful coda you’ll savour. No dog is involved.
Freewill Shakespeare Festival
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Directed by: Kevin Sutley
Starring: Ben Stevens, Oscar Derkx, Gianna Vacirca, Patricia Cerra, Nathan Cuckow, Robert Benz, Bobbi Goddard, Stephanie Wolfe
Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park
Running: through July 14 (alternating with The Winter’s Tale), on even dates and most matinees
Tickets: freewillshakespeare.com or at the gate