Imagine my surprise, having very pleasant time sitting in the park on a pleasant evening when, catching me unawares, a theater company appeared, as if transubstantiated from the very air.
This is an entirely genuine account of how I found myself at Shakespeare in Clark Park’s latest, THE TWO GENTLEMAN OF VERONA.
Just as always, it’s very nice in the grass and the open air, and, as the proliferation of outdoor Shakespeare performances may suggest, the night sky is a natural fit. The choice of VERONA, however, forces a reckoning with an indelicately crafted script, product of an early Shakespeare, as-yet unfulfilled of his later mastery.
Proteus (Jake Blouch), beloved by Julia (Claire Inie-Richards), arrives in Milan and immediately forgets her in favor of Silvia (Maria Konstantinidis), daughter of the Duke, unhappily betrothed to vain Thurio (Brock Vickers), and, most unfortunately, engaged with Proteus’s childhood friend Valentine (David Glover). Seeing no other avenue to her affections, he betrays his friend to the Duke of Milan (Lindsay Smiling), first maneuver in a wildly unsuccessful seduction campaign.
The final scene presents itself in a heap, having saved the reconciliation of all threads for the last: Proteus is caught by Valentine attempting to force himself on Silvia, Julia is discovered to have been disguising herself as a male servant, Proteus realizes his folly, Valentine and Silvia forgive him, Thurio is run off into the woods, the Duke of Milan accepts their love, and finally, breathlessly, Proteus is forgiven by Julia. Everyone gets married.
In the span of moments, Proteus is reconfigured from a melodramatic romantic and disloyal conniver to an attempted rapist to a forgiven, inoculated fiance. One can appreciate the position director Kathryn MacMillan is in, yet the results remain baffling.
The production lacks firm direction. Tone is inconstant, characters oscillating without cause between by-the-book Shakespeare and decidedly modern comic sensibilities. There’s a cloying eagerness for the laugh, a willingness to abandon the scene for a joke. Most distressingly, Launce (Meghan Winch), designated clown and traditional VERONA highlight, never quite comes alive, crowded as she is by an overabundance of pushy laughs.
Jazz music, usually an easy fit for Shakespeare and here performed live by the Suburban Jazz Quartet, has a difficult time engaging comfortably with the result.
Ultimately, however, these end up being minor infelicities. Lance Kniskern’s set and Shannon Zura’s lights are perfect for the setting, the unnatural hanging windows and gradual illumination accentuating the beguiling Midsummer Night’s mood of the whole affair. Blouch’s Proteus, too, is a treat. Shakespeare’s dramatic irony still pops and whirrs just as you’d want it to, as fun as it’s always been, and Proteus’s scenes of inconstancy and scheming are compelling and hilarious in a way that theater can uncommonly muster. The production, though occasionally troubled, can still put a finger on the pulse of Shakespeare at its best.
[Clark Park, 4398 Chester Avenue] July 27-31, 2016; shakespeareinclarkpark.org.