For the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, director Matt Pfeiffer notes, "We're trying to evoke a fable that's not our world. The space between our time and these characters gives the audience some distance to enjoy the comic misunderstandings." But as the play's more outrageous plot twists and the production’s setting create that detachment, they are also used to support the comic and emotional core of the production rooted in the seriousness with which it treats the characters' relationships.
Contributing to this sense of theatrical distance is the pleasing subtlety of the production's visual design. Scenic designer Samina Vieth riffs on the simple lines of a thrust stage with a few choice details. Wooden trim, tasteful marble columns, and a parquet floor create a welcoming sense of warmth; the large, slightly irregular bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling hearken back to more recent centuries past. The set’s ambiguous time period also allows the audience to become engaged while still preserving the play’s imaginative space. Marla Jurglanis's costume design is similarly indefinite, evoking the 19th and early 20th centuries without confining itself to any specific period: men wear trousers, waistcoats, and coats, while the ladies tend towards blouses, corsets, and long skirts. The color palette is muted but not dull, allowing an otherwise riotous mixture of textures and patterns to peacefully coexist. The one slightly mystifying note is Sylvia's costume, puzzlingly alone in not adhering to the general time period; her pale blue gown with its puffed and slashed sleeves makes her visually distinct, but gives the impression her fashion sense is several hundreds of years out of date, or perhaps leans more towards historical reenactment.
One of the key connections to the production's honest emotionalism depends on the musical accompaniment, made possible by the efforts of sound designer Matthew Given, music director Alex Bechtel, and the considerably talented cast. Featured before the play and in between scenes, the acoustic arrangements quirkily blend modern music (the Fleet Foxes, Eddie Vedder, Led Zeppelin...) with the old-time setting, enhancing the text as they address everything from the uncertainty of growing up to the trials of heartbreak to the pleasures of pet ownership.
Shakespeare's own musical efforts are not neglected, either. "Who is Sylvia?" is truly a show-stopper, if not necessarily in the way performers Proteus (Zack Robidas) or the amazingly dandyish Thurio (Alex Bechtel) intend. The entire cast's comedic abilities – musical, physical, and verbal – are one of the greatest strengths in an already strong production. While multiple characters succumb to lovesickness, Nicole Erb as Julia perfectly demonstrates the hilarious conflict of negotiating the confusing desires of one's own heart and the restrictions of social mores. Luigi Sottile's Valentine faces a similar dilemma, in addition to having to bluff his way out of a number of sticky situations, or outbanter expert banterers Speed (Peter Danelski) or Launce (Scott Greer). Even rescue dog Duncan, in his PSF debut as Crab, deploys a well-timed deadpan on his adorable little face.
But in addition to balancing pratfalls with snappy comebacks in between music breaks, Pfeiffer and the cast never lose sight of the play's emotional storyline. While hysterically funny, the characters' feelings are never treated as less than sincere. Launce's love for his family and dog is sardonic yet sweet, the sympathy and respect between Sylvia (Marnie Schulenburg) and Julia is refreshing, and the conflict caused by Proteus' unfaithfulness has real weight. There's an obvious affection between the titular characters, and Robidas generates a good deal of sympathy in his portrayal of Proteus' struggle with his own awfulness. When Valentine rebukes his treachery, Proteus' heartbreak and regret are palpable, providing as much justification as is possible for earning forgiveness for such profound betrayals.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a meditation on the value of all kinds of relationships – among lovers, friends old and new, master and servant, master and pet – and an excellent example of how the stylized lens of art reflects the realities of life. The setting may be ambiguous and the plot unlikely, but the emotional substance is no joke.