Not So Gentle

Forsooth, here we go again.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival opened last weekend with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of the Bard's earliest, and more problematic, comedies. Like most of the CSF's efforts over the last five seasons, the play quickly falls victim to directorial caprice and, at times, sheer ineptitude: An ill-fitting concept smothers the story instead of breathing new life into it; the dialogue takes a back seat to endless, between-the-lines physical shtick; a mostly silent quintet of characters invented by the show's director, Jane Page, earn more curtain-call applause than does the entire contingent of characters created by that dimwit who obviously didn't know how to write a play, William Shakespeare; the choice of period, the late 1940s, does nothing to enhance or inform the play's theme about the warring ideals of love and friendship (the story about self-centered twenty-somethings would be better suited to an era that everyone can intuitively recognize -- such as today's Me Generation, or even the go-go 1980s); and the director's let-it-all-hang-out approach pulverizes any sense or meaning from the monologues, asides and two-person scenes that make up over half of the play.

All of this is too bad, because Page's idea to set the play in an amusement park initially seems like a good idea. Usually, love flourishes and cheap thrills invigorate even in the most rickety and run down of carnivals. As fashioned by set designer Bruce Bergner, the colorful funhouse environment, complete with a ferris-wheel backdrop, roller-coaster track and several painted sideshow cloths, has the potential to lend some needed continuity to the play's inconsistencies and abrupt turns of events. And the actors, many of whom are accomplished and talented, do their level best to imbue each character with dimension and humanity.

Unfortunately, as the play begins, five winged "pranksters of love" called putti -- putzes is more like it -- dominate the stage and never fade into the background as much as they should. The Cupid-like quintet, invented by Page, is evidently intended to show the audience how otherworldly beings influence humans' feelings of love and affection, even though the play demonstrates how humans, by themselves, have trouble reconciling love with friendship; the putti also play several minor roles, which helps to integrate them into Shakespeare's original. But while some of the putti's antics are inspired -- to cite one example, they fan bits of a ripped love letter back into the hands of a young woman, who promptly thanks the wind for its kindness -- most of their behavior draws focus from or completely overshadows the spoken dialogue, making a difficult play even harder to follow and understand, much less appreciate.

For instance, every time one of the two rogues of the play's title, Proteus, steps forward to share some of his feelings with the audience -- he can't decide whether to remain loyal to his down-home girl, Julia, and best pal, Valentine, or pursue Valentine's glamorous girlfriend, Silvia -- the putti "act out" his feelings for him by mugging and clowning in the background or, worse, making Proteus the central object in a supernatural tug-of-war. When Proteus and Julia explore their feelings for each other, the putti audibly sigh at every sappy turn, and when the young man finally falls for Silvia, his ensuing monologue -- which provides crucial information about his motives and feelings -- is all but lost under a silent, choric barrage of exaggerated gestures.

On the brighter side, performers Erin Moon and Daniel Larlham shine as Julia and Proteus, respectively, and Kyle Haden and Gloria Biegler competently enact the slightly less wholesome pair of Valentine and Silvia. Actor Lars Tatom slathers the character of the Duke with some broad W.C. Fields-ish touches; Chip Persons is adept as the comic servant Speed; and despite being pressed into service on opening night, understudy Annie Yim acquits herself well as the girlish confidante, Lucetta, here transformed into a wisecracking hairstylist.

Regrettably, the two-and-a-half-hour show is stolen by the putti, as indicated by the disproportionate amount of applause they soak up at the end of the play (and by Page's decision to let them take the final bow, which, by rights, belongs to the quartet of lovers). The slouching Jersey shmoes are inventive, entertaining and nimble -- and their tendency to rely on anachronism seems borrowed wholesale, albeit to far lesser effect, from the CSF's only all-out success of recent years, Joel Fink's inspired 1950s version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which was staged in 1996. But by allowing her characters to become more important than the Bard's, Page ends up turning Two Gentlemen into a bit-filled, prop-ridden, seriously unfunny nightmare.

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Jim Lillie