As the old saying goes, bros before…well you get the picture. As it turns out Shakespeare was the inventor, trying to prove to us that two friends thick as thieves should never let a woman come between them because when they do their world easily implodes upon itself. Take that notion and wrap it up in the 90’s world of posh and snobby and you’ve got one bodacious journey as the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents Two Gentlemen of Verona. Director Patrick Kilpatrick takes this Bard comedy classic and transports it to the 90’s — an era of privilege and power where money shows its standing, but love proves that it still conquers all. This romping comedic adaptation squeezes the essence of Shakespeare into the elaborate lifestyle of the rich and famous with the added edge of live acoustic music and a barrel full of laughs. And did I mention the dogs?
Costume Designer Kristina Lambdin articulates Kilpatrick’s sense of aristocratic 90’s in her design work. The two best friends look like private school snobs decked out in their chic cardigans which occasionally get slung over their shoulders like fashion accessories. The same prep-school feel isn’t lost on the women as Lambdin gives them the sharp crisp blazers and short checkered skirts. But the defining moment of refinement in her work is the stuffy full tailored suit for the Duke of Milan, complete with an ascot. The throwback to the 90’s style of snobbery blended with finery really assists the modern transition of this production.
Director Patrick Kilpatrick brings a unique feel of the bourgeoisie to the production; that privileged class of well to do capitalists that are so powerful and important that they need their own security detail. Two flanking the Duke wherever he goes and one with Sylvia, the secret service (played by Bobby Henneberg, Catherine McGlynn, and Melanie Vitullo) enter the play space and announce covertly that it’s ‘clear’ before allowing these two prestigious characters to enter. Between this and the fusion of 90’s songs done in acoustic at the beginning of each act and at the end, the audience knows we’ve taken a time traveling journey back to the days of Clueless and Ritchie Rich.
The most important thing about performing Shakespeare with a modern twist is preserving the integrity of the Bard’s words while still translating the emotions of what’s happening. Text Coach Teresa Castracane works with the ensemble to ensure that the baser instincts of these well-crafted characters are communicated flawlessly while still fusing the flagrant attitudes of spoiled brat teenagers from the 90’s into their translations. Castracane’s work is best exhibited in Sylvia and Julia who have outrageous tantrums befitting of a petulant toddler who was told ‘no cookies before dinner’ while still perfectly articulating each phrase to do swift justice to Shakespeare’s dialogue.
Villainy thinly veiled in money is still villainy, regardless of how subtly it’s portrayed. And the Duke (Michael P. Sullivan) creeps out of the woodwork, smiting Valentine’s plan before it can unfurl. Sullivan captures ruthless and churlish all in one fell swoop. Sullivan waggles a spiteful tongue with truth wrath, never having to raise his voice above conversation’s level to truly strike fear into Valentine, becoming that natural villain that we all love to hate.
Balancing out the darkness of the Duke is the comedic escapades of Speed (Jessica Shearer Wilson) and Launce (Jose Guzman). Wilson, the ever aloof and yet comically grounded servant of Valentine has a keen sense of comic timing and is vastly expressive, particularly when using her eyes to speak for her. Her voice captures the essence of poetic imagery, especially when trying to explain to her master how the love he loves has in fact fallen in love with him. As if that weren’t enough, Wilson proves herself one step further by adding a siren’s voice to the chorus at the opening of act II, keep your ears on her it’s a sound you won’t want to miss.
Guzman is the king of fools in this production. Every situation he finds himself in is a dire point in his life, taking things drastically serious, which ultimately makes them hysterical for the audience. Never hath a man loved his dog more than Guzman’s character loves Crab (played by an adorable dog called Norton). And his antics often involving this dog leave the audience rolling with laughter as the play rumbles along.
The high school-like nature of the four main characters comes to fruition by the portrayal of four very talented actors. The way they interact with one another builds deep levels of chemistry, both pleasant and treacherous, stronger bonds are hard to come by. Valentine (James Jager) and Proteus (Vince Eisenson) are so close they could be brothers, the male equivalent of BFF’s, reminiscent of frat brothers in their camaraderie. But let a woman come between them and it all goes south from there.
Eisenson is lovestruck like a loon from the beginning, completely twitterpated, fully enamored, and head over heels for Julia (Megan Dominy.) Dominy in return shares this high school sweetheart emotion and the pair are gushier than the king and queen at prom. When they exchange rings their eyes are practically bulging out of their heads with adoration and affection for one another, so sweet it’s enough to make you sick. Eisenson’s every move, from the way he stares at her, to the way he speaks reflects his unyielding love for Julia— a little like the star quarterback dropping easy passes because the cheer captain is waving from the bleachers. Together the pair make for a perfect romantic couple.
That is until Sylvia (Ty Hallmark) comes along. Hallmark’s approach to love is much more subtle and underscored in her general actions, a coy hint here at Valentine, a simple lilt in her voice there. But in a snap she becomes a frigid ice queen, motivated by pure fury that radiates through her body up and out through her vicious words as she spits them at Proteus, rebuking and rejecting him because her heart has been cleaved in twain by Valentine’s exile. Dominy too shifts characteristics quite drastically when she learns of her love’s betrayal, transitioning from the wildly starry-eyed lovestruck teen into a bereft crushed woman who feels no hope, only sorrow.
This quartet of actors has a mastery of Shakespeare’s language, and to say such is an understatement of their ability to translate what is happening in each scene to the audience. They align their performances seamlessly into Kilpatrick’s vision of a 90’s Verona, and leave no emotional stone unturned as they ride the perpetual ups and downs of teenage romance. A stellar performance that breathes the notions of Shakespeare out to the audience while keeping it fresh and lively for all those otherwise familiar with this particular comedy.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
Two Gentlemen of Verona plays through March 17, 2013 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company at The Other Barn — 5851 Robert Oliver Place in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 313-8661, or purchase them online.