Opening Nights: Two Gentlemen of Verona

You know how it is when you're into this one girl, but then your best friend starts going out with someone way hotter, and you do stuff that's, like, totally heinous to try to get her attention? You do? Then you can definitely relate to this production. We're not in the middle of a J.J. Abrams or Aaron Spelling show; we're in the imaginary Southern California principalities of Milan and Verona, where designer rack meets surfer slack and clueless kids of privilege do despicable things while anguishing about their uncontrollable emotions...in Elizabethan English! Sound excruciating? Quite the contrary. Here's the summary: Righteous preppie Valentine (Connor Toms) leaves Verona to broaden his horizons in Milan. His pal Proteus (Daniel Brockley) doesn't want to go with, because he's high on Julia (Hana Lass). But at the urging of his father, he does, and immediately shifts his ardor to Valentine's gf Silvia (Emily Grogan). The rest of the play concerns Proteus' duplicitous efforts to sabotage his friend so he can get Silvia, and Julia's determined efforts to win him back.Director Marcus Goodwin's decision to set Shakespeare's early rom-com in the ultra-contemporary world of Versace, sleek boardrooms, and luxurious mansions pays off in numerous ways. Any criticism of the play's credulity-stretching events evaporates in such an outrageous, witless (though still quite witty) universe. Production costs stay low through the clever use of a white backdrop at the back of the stage, with rear projections illustrating maps, cell-phone snapshots, text messages, and scenery (courtesy of designer Jason Phillips). Rob Witmer's aptly clubby soundtrack includes Lady Gaga, Snow Patrol, and Sade. And then there are the simply hilarious contemporary spins on the text—e.g., in order for Proteus to produce a ring on the spot to give Julia, he must first discreetly remove it from his own nipple. When he opts to forsake her, he does so by deleting her photo from his cell phone.As Proteus, Brockley exudes that sort of Timberlakeian magnetism that, while unfathomable to grownups, proves a veritable Ecstasy pill for the teen set. He's sinewy, squinty, and snake-like, unlike the more robust and straightforward Valentine. Their rambunctious friendship smacks of homoerotic anxiety, which lends psychological motivation to Proteus' seduction of Silvia. The women are comparatively mature and, in the parlance of love, "constant." Each knows whom she wants and doesn't waver. Lass' Julia is adorably labile as she stalks her callow Proteus, while Grogan's Silvia radiates that odd maturity of society kids who wear thousand-dollar blouses.Neither freshman playwright Shakespeare nor this production is above the cheap laugh, but that doesn't make the laughs any less funny. Chris Ensweiler's Launce the fool is a trippy Valley-boy pot vendor whose chronically perplexed intonations render virtually every line he speaks a gut-buster. His dog Crab—here played by a sour-faced, arthritic bulldog named Russ—slays the audience at his every appearance.If there were one thing I'd change about this production, stellar overall, it'd be to cut it by about 20 percent. Not that there are any bum lines, scenes, or moments, but there are just too many of them. It's true that redundancy is a big part of teen life, but the countervailing realities of short attention spans and the need for a tightly controlled story probably ought to trump it. The talented actors strain valiantly to make certain bloated passages relevant, when truly they don't need to be there at all. Still, this ballsy production packs plenty of fresh, including a superbly satisfying twist ending that Shakespeare could never have gotten away with.

 
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