SALT LAKE CITY — Utah seems to have a love affair with Shakespeare. Between the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the annual Shakespeare at Pioneer Theatre Company and Grassroots Shakespeare Company, Utah can’t seem to get enough of the Bard of Avon. Ushering in its 19th year, Salt Lake Shakespeare presents Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Considered by most to be one of his first plays, and by some to be one of his weakest, it was nonetheless a fun production of a lesser performed work.
Two Gentlemen tells the story of Proteus and Valentine, best friends from childhood. Valentine (Ryon Sharette) is preparing to leave Verona for Milan and invites Proteus (David Joel Bohnet) to join him. Proteus is in love with Julia (Summer Spence) and therefore declines to leave Verona. Soon after, Proteus’ father (Andy Ricci, who also plays Launce) declares that Proteus must join Valentine in Milan. Julia and Proteus bid each other a tearful goodbye and exchange rings as a sign of their love. Arriving in Milan, Proteus finds Valentine in love with Sylvia (Emilia Stawicki), the daughter of the Duchess of Milan (Barbara Smith). Proteus instantly falls in love with her and plots to have Valentine exiled by exposing his plans to elope with Sylvia. Shortly after his exile, Proteus announces that Valentine is rumored to be dead. In the meantime, Julia decides to join Proteus in Milan, but disguises herself as a boy, named Sebastian, so as to avoid harm on the journey. Once in Milan, she discovers that Proteus has fallen in love with Sylvia. Still in disguise, she becomes servant to Proteus and is tasked with delivering a love letter to Sylvia, along with the ring she had given him, as a token of his love to Sylvia. Sylvia spurns the offers and plans to flee Milan to find Valentine, whom she believes to still be alive. Upon entering the forest, she is captured by outlaws and taken to their leader, who turns out to be Valentine. Through a clever lie explaining that he had been banished for killing a man, Valentine was named leader of the outlaws. Before they reach Valentine, they encounter Proteus and Sebastian (Julia in disguise). Proteus, who rescues Sylvia, then insinuates that if she will not love him, he will still have her, forcibly if necessary. At this point Valentine appears, rescues Sylvia, and denounces Proteus. Proteus pleads forgiveness as Valentine’s hatred of him is no less than his own self-loathing. Valentine forgives him and seems to offer Sylvia to him, at which Julia faints revealing her true identity. Proteus on seeing her recalls his love for her. The Duke enters and with everything explained, accepts Valentine as Sylvia’s betrothed, the two sets of lovers are united and the outlaws are pardoned.
Director Hugh Hanson has created an engaging production with this version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, including the addition of music provided by a troubadour (Laura Melton) and minstrel (Linton Dean). Composer and Music Director Cathy Neff has at times adapted lyrics and dialog from Shakespeare and created tunes and background that mesh well with the action of the story. The music provides seamless introductions into the shows two acts, a brilliant segue to the intermission and a nice ending number for the show. Melton and Dean are both strong and secure in their singing and very enjoyable to listen to.
The cast is, with few exceptions, excellent in their portrayals of Shakespeare’s characters. Chief among the cast is Linton Dean as Speed, Ricci as Launce, Spence as Julia and Sharette as Valentine. Dean and Ricci practically steal the show when they are on stage. Their delivery of the comic scenes is wonderful, particularly in the second act when Launce is listing the virtues and faults of his intended. Their timing is ideal and their facial expressions are great fun to watch; Dean is masterful in that. Also, it should be noted that in most scenes, Ricci must keep from being upstaged by Bear, who is playing Launce’s dog, Crab. At times Bear seemed distracted either by the audience or other actors, and Ricci always maintained to keep control in those moments, and kept the funny even when being upstaged. Bravo for that!
Summer Spence walked a fine line as Julia. The part can be played for pathos in the first act, or slapstick in the second (when she is disguised as a boy), but she maintained the balance and gave one of the most well-rounded performances of a female character that I’ve seen for a long time. I don’t mean to sound condescending in this. Shakespeare has some very superficial female characters in his shows, particularly in the comedies. Often they are played very one-dimensionally. Spence did none of that and gave a very real portrayal of a betrayed woman in love. She was particularly good in the second act when, disguised as a boy, she must woo the woman her lover has now set his sights on. The internal struggle of sealing her fate, but doing that duty out of love was deep for a comedy and well portrayed. Ryon Sharette as Valentine is one of those rare actors who captures your eye when onstage. He is always supportive of his fellow actors, but you are drawn to him and his charisma onstage. He has a bearing and naturalness about his character, especially when captured by the outlaws, and convincing them he has been exiled for killing a man.
While there were no real weak links in the cast, there were some choices of characterizations that I didn’t quite buy. Proteus (Bohnet) is supposed to be the beau ideal of Verona, a man’s man and lady killer. Bohnet is certainly handsome and a very fine actor, but he never convinced me that Proteus was all these things. While his portrayal was good, it wasn’t big enough or as fully fleshed out for my tastes. The outlaws, portrayed by the Apprentice Company, were fun, but the song given to introduce them, while catchy (I can still him the chorus), was played too safe. It would have been made more of an impact if it had been played as a Mel Brooks-ian, Men in Tights number. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it was too cute and didn’t really do much to set up the humor they tried to go for later. Most of the Apprentice Company is female and a majority of the outlaws’ lines describe how manly they all are. These jokes would have had a more powerful impact had the song been played for bigger laughs.
The set design by Kevin S. Dudley, which served for both this production and the musical Once Upon a Mattress, provided a nice variety or levels and was easily adapted by the lighting design of Ethan Olsen to fit the various settings of the play. Costume design by Amanda Reiser was beautiful and functional, with the exception of the bizarrely designed cod pieces, which seemed oddly attached and unnecessary save for one gag toward the end of the show.
Salt Lake Shakespeare has established itself as a staple of the summer theatre scene in Utah. With the addition of a musical and green show prior to performances, Salt Lake Shakespeare appears to be headed for a long and fruitful future. Even if you take advantage of the other Shakespeare offerings in Utah, you are missing out if you do not catch Salt Lake Shakespeare and this production. It is a gem of the summer theater scene.