Given that The Two Gentlemen of Verona was Shakespeare’s first and last play to feature a dog, the informative signs about the Bard and his works that line the pathways of Rockwood Park ask what, exactly, might have happened to discourage Shakespeare from further exploration of that particular gimmick. The Delaware Shakespeare Festival has no answers: their dog is perfectly well-behaved, and fits in nicely with the likewise charming production.
This Two Gents is set in the Roaring Twenties, a clever choice that relates to the play’s motifs of grand living and rebellious youth. The set itself, by scenic designer Adam Riggar, is fairly basic, but the two-level wooden platform with its irregular shapes and splashes of primary colors looks like the Cubist version of a thrust stage, and the backdrop is formed by brightly colored umbrellas so beloved by the Surrealists. Amanda Wolff’s costume design maintains the color palette with lovingly recreated fashions that show a superb eye for detail. Julia’s romantic flowing day dress is exchanged for a neat page’s uniform in a similar shade of burnt sienna, while the more sophisticated Silvia wears a sleek gown of black lace and vibrant yellow, with a turquoise bracelet that matches her beloved Valentine’s shirt. The eponymous gentlemen sport snappy seersucker pants and waistcoats, with Valentine’s in cool blue and Proteus’ in a daring pink stolen right out of The Great Gatsby. Their servants broadly follow their color schemes, but rendered in bolder shades and conflicting patterns with their vests, plus-fours, and argyle socks; Speed’s slick hair and bow-tie set him apart from Lance’s homier flat cap and a purple necktie chosen, apparently, to match his dog’s collar. The foppish Thurio’s eye-watering orange plaid suit is even double-breasted, preserving the chain of puns that includes his indignant “My jerkin is a doublet!” Just as immersive as the visuals is the Jazz Age music, composed by Michael Hahn: the ensemble frequently pops up for some mood music, “Silvia’s Song” is a show-stopper, and dance numbers choreographed by director Samantha Bellomo begin each half of the production and provide a rousing finale.
The cast has no problems with the exuberance required for either the Charleston or the play’s many outbursts of overwhelming emotion, but this sometimes backfires when it comes to their comic timing, which often seems steamrollered by the broadness of the acting style. Overall, however, the cast is exciting and likable — even Adam Darrow as Proteus, who does an admirable job of keeping his character compelling and fairly sympathetic even as he racks up more and more nominations for the Worst Friend and Lover Award. Clare Mahoney as Julia and Brandon Pierce as Valentine both excel as enamoured love-fools, hilariously swooning all over the stage in their fits of romantic inspiration and frustration. Griffin Stanton-Ameisen makes for a blithely funny Launce, but his true talent is not getting constantly upstaged by his cuter, shorter, and shaggier co-star: Prince, of the Faithful Friends Animal Society, playing Crab as an adorable innocent who nevertheless has the mischievous streak required to sneakily make water against a gentlewoman’s farthingale.
When it comes to the setting, Bellomo’s attention to detail is unerring. The chosen decade, though not an immediately obvious choice, balances well with the text (even occasionally enhancing the play: one of the funniest moments of the production is the discovery that Silvia has “acquiesced” to Proteus’ stalkerish tendencies by sending him a copy of Picasso’s La Rêve in place of her own portrait to pine over). Some of the more technical aspects, however, leave a little to be desired. Besides the issue with the comedic acting style, the blocking is not always successful for a production surrounded on three sides by the audience. A bigger disappointment, however, is the treatment of the play’s infamous denouement, where Valentine forgives Proteus’ many treacheries with the line “all that was mine in Silvia I give thee.” Valentine accepts Proteus’ sudden repentance immediately, undercutting the seriousness of his crimes, and confusingly, this production seems to use both common interpretations of the key line. Pierce (Valentine) embraces Darrow (Proteus) as though the love Valentine bears Proteus is again equal to Valentine’s love for Silvia, but Mahoney (Julia) collapses in horror as though she has just witnessed Valentine trying to betroth her own fiancé to Silvia, the woman Proteus literally just sexually assaulted. Emilie Krause’s Silvia offers no clues either way, continuing to regard Proteus with the same wariness she has held him in throughout the scene, rather than reacting to either her beloved’s forgiveness of his repentant best friend or yet another attempt to force her to marry (something she has historically objected to rather strongly, what with the multiple escape attempts).
Despite this stumble at the finish line, the production’s concept remains strong. The Delaware Shakespeare Festival’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona is solidly entertaining and one can expect with some confidence that their future will continue to follow Shakespeare’s own ambitious arc. After all, he closed out the use of animals (or an actor’s portrayal thereof) in his plays with the direction Exit, pursued by a bear.