This one goes to the dogs. Because the play itself is something of a dog and prominently features a dog, the American Shakespeare Company's production trots out a number of dog references as an extension of the play's best joke.
Calling The Two Gentlemen of Verona "a dog" is an assessment relative to Shakespeare's other works; relative to Shakespeare's contemporaries and 450 years of playwriting, Two Gents is an adequately entertaining play even with its faults. And in that promise hangs the ultimate success of this particular production.
To overcome the play's faults and make it and its insulting ending (where Valentine offers his Sylvia up to Proteus after the latter has tried to rape her) palatable to modern audiences, other directors have used alternative formats (i.e., the Broadway musical version), clever devices (i.e., the Folger's use of masks in its 2004 production), and transportative concepts (i.e., Shakespeare Theatre Company's mostly serious take at modern youth culture earlier this year). Ralph Alan Cohen pushes no such envelopes in this production. Staying true to the ASC's text-centric tenets and its re-creation of the style and conventions of Shakespeare's original methods in the re-creation of Shakespeare's Blackfriars playhouse, Cohen simply puts the play out there as it is and counts on his indoctrinated-yet-talented cast to carry it off. This production doesn't even use the Blackfriars' inherent strength, its easily accessible audience, to overcome the mostly static script. Except for James Keegan as one of the outlaws stealing M&Ms from a kid sitting on one of the gallant stools, the action rarely encompasses the audience.
As such, the play's shortcomings are clearly evident here: ill-defined characters, mostly pedestrian humor, stilted dialogue, poetry that on occasion waxes eloquent but more often wanes pedantic, imagery arcs as subtle as a mallet hammering a tack, and a plot shoddily carried out (not to mention that embarrassing ending). Shakespeare supposedly wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor in two weeks; if that's true, this production suggests he wrote The Two Gentlemen of Verona on an all-nighter.
For academics, this production is a rare treat to see the play in all its purity. For the rest of us, thank goodness the cast is as talented, as expert in Shakespearean verse-speaking, and as earnest as it is. That, along with another Shakespearean/Blackfriars convention—incorporating contemporary music into the show—left us sufficiently entertained.
In particular, this production announces the arrival of Allison Glenzer as a true star. We've seen her play many clowns, we've seen her induce tears from the audience with her Emelia in Othello, and we've seen her command the stage with her Zabina in Tamburlaine. But as Speed, she is truly transcendent. She creates a character we genuinely care about (even if Shakespeare didn't care enough to give him anything more than stock character substance) and scores laughs on three levels: by telling the good jokes well, by telling the bad jokes with such knowing chutzpah we can't help laughing, and by insightful reading of and perfect timing with Speed's conversational dialogue. Glenzer's reading of Speed teaches you how Shakespeare, especially in his prose, genuinely captured common conversation, whether it was common for the 16th century or for the 21st century.
Benjamin Curns's performance as Launce illustrates another element of the Shakespearean script: its improvisational flexibility. Launce shares the stage with Crab the dog, played in this performance by Tulip, a mixed-breed from the Augusta Dog Adoptions; ASC is partnering with the organization, offering up each Crab to the audience for adoption. Tulip didn't really get into the role of Crab and, in fact, seemed totally unaware of her star turn. Unrehearsed as she is, Tulip forces Curns's Launce to react to her, and Curns brings all of his Shakespearean improv skills to the role (much as did the original Launce, Will Kemp). A great moment comes when Launce describes Crab's behavior in the dining room and how he, Launce, takes the blame. "How many masters would do this for his servant?" Launce asks, and Tulip grows skittish, perhaps reacting to Curns's tone. The audience "awwws," but Curns's Launce will have none of it. "Nay," he says turning on the audience: "I'll be sworn I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had been executed." What a perfect response in that particular live moment—and yet, it's right there in Shakespeare's text.
Another bit of inspired casting is Gregory Jon Phelps as Proteus. Phelps has logged many hours on the Blackfriars stage playing lovers and scammers, and here he plays both in one. His naively romantic behavior wins the audience over easily, so when he first falls for Sylvia, the people react with an audible "uh-oh." When he works out the logic for betraying his friend ("I to myself am dearer than a friend"), some in the audience groan, disappointed. And when he gives Juliet her own ring to present to Sylvia, the gasps are numerous. How could such a romantic sweetie become such a careless fool? Phelps manages such a subtly effective portrayal that he has the audience wrapped up in his character's transition. The other principals are all ably acted by Grant Davis as a true Valentine, Tracie Thomason as an immaturely romantic but plucky Julia, and Abbi Hawk as a flirtatious but ultimately steadfast Sylvia.
Two Gentlemen of Verona is a see-saw of love plot/comedy routine, scene by scene. However, Cohen invests one of the comic schtick scenes with a clever bit of staging that helps resolve the play's plot. As Proteus coaches Thurio (Chris Johnston as a pouting dandy), the disguised Julia offers up insulting asides at Thurio's expense. In this production, Proteus hears Julia's insults, and so he starts ramping up his advice to Thurio to feed Julia's quipping responses; and Phelps's Protius loves it, and so grows to admire the boy who really once was and will be his betrothed.
Nevertheless, presenting a plausible plot or vaudeville skits is not the ultimate point of this production. ASC seems to be staging Two Gentlemen of Verona to illustrate Shakespeare's sheer audacity at sending a dog out on stage; and even if Shakespeare didn't have a real dog on stage—it could have been a puppet, an actor in a masque, or something off-stage—ASC displays its own sheer audacity by doing so. And so, the production capitalizes on this by making dogs the primary theme of the preshow and interlude music, and even songs during the play. "Bird Dog" (originally an Everly Brothers' hit), "Hound Dog" (Elvis Presley, et al.)" and "Dirty Old Egg-Suckin' Dog" (Johnny Cash) are all covered during the course of the production, and hard upon the play's unsatisfying denouement, the rest of the cast join the principals and without hesitation launch into "Puppy Love." What a perfect summation for this trifling piece of work. Funny, too.