Can there be anything more light-headed in all of Shakespeare’s canon as “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” a comedy about best buddies falling madly for the same woman? And can there be anything more light-hearted than the current “Two Gentlemen” production at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, where everyone tumbles into love with an unbridled giddiness that awakens them and sets their worlds spinning?
To hear the actors tell it in this interpretation, love is nothing short of a revelation. Director Matt Pfeiffer conjures, in Shakespeare’s words, love so innocent and new and youthful that it enlarges the natural charm of the play. Even when things get tough, when deception intrudes, it’s all in the protection of love.
Some scholars believe “Two Gentlemen” may the first play Shakespeare wrote, and among them are the editors of his texts at Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company. Even if it wasn’t his first, “Two Gentlemen” was an early play, with beautiful writing, a load of word play (occasionally bawdy), a cascade of extended metaphors – and a rotten ending.
In “Two Gentlemen,” inseparable pals Valentine (the amply talented Philadelphia actor Luigi Sottile) and Proteus (a convincing Zack Robidas) argue over love. Proteus is wild for Julia (Nicole Erb, whose robust fickleness about the guy is catching). But Valentine will have none of this love stuff – until he travels to Milan, where the mere sight of a gal named Silvia is enough to make him burst into sonnets. Silvia herself (Marnie Schulenburg, starry-eyed and smitten) is wild for him.
When Proteus comes for a visit, he’s immediately taken by Silvia, too. He ditches whatever feelings he had back in Verona for Julia and vows to steal Silvia away from his friend Valentine. The deceptions he devises are treacherous – but, hey, love conquers all decency.
This being Elizabethan comedy, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” has to end in as many marriages as possible, but Shakespeare’s plot makes that unlikely. So he creates an abrupt and artificial ending in which everyone makes nice within five minutes. There’s not a director or actor around who can make it feel anything but a cheat – although in this production Sottile’s Valentine tries impressively, followed immediately by Peter DeLaurier playing Silvia’s dad. He despises Valentine. But in order to make the ending work, he must now admire the boy.
Ah, well. If you’re looking for air-tight, “Two Gentlemen” is not the place to find it. But along the way it’s great fun, enhanced here by Pfeiffer’s staging, which gives the play a bouncy cadence on Samina Vieth’s multi-story set. Marla Jurglanis’ costumes are handsome and Alex Bechtel gives the production both music and music direction. Bechtel plays a jilted would-be lover with supercilious flair – and also plays several instruments, leads other instrument-playing actors in musical backgrounds and, in a nice touch, includes moody versions of Eddie Vedder’s “Turning Mistakes Into Gold” and Daniel Johnston’s “Worried Shoes.” The songs fit the play.
Two of those actor-musicians are Peter Danelski and Scott Greer, who gamely play what Shakespeare called “clownish servants” – not quite smart enough to be standard Shakespearean fools. Greer’s character kicks around with his dog, Crab, in tow. Crab’s real name is Duncan, a Yorkshire terrier with an irresistible face and a scene-stealing talent. Plus, his very presence reminds us to keep a cautious eye on all the puppy love around him.
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” runs through July 13 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, on DeSales University Campus, 2755 Station Avenue in Center Valley, a few miles north of Quakertown. 610-282-9455 or www.pashakespeare.org.