Encore Michigan

MSF actually improves upon Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’

Review July 16, 2019 Bridgette Redman

JACKSON, Mich.–Had Shakespeare had more time after his Stratford retirement to edit his works before he died, they might have come out looking the way Robert Kauzlaric puts them together.

Kauzlaric, who is directing Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, is not shy about editing the Bard’s works to make them even more compelling to a modern audience. He doesn’t simply tighten up a few speeches or cut a scene here and there as most directors do. He finds the storyline and twists the script to tell that story, doing whatever it takes whether it is giving one character’s parts to another or borrowing from lines or scenes from other plays.

Yet, even though he makes bold with the red pen and is free with his changes, the results are always completely Shakespearean. He doesn’t do away with the flavor or the richness of all that makes Shakespeare great. Rather, he brings it into greater focus and you are left with something that almost feels more Shakespeare than Shakespeare.

Thus it is with Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies and one that isn’t often done in part because of its problematic ending. Yet, it is a fun play with many of the elements that will come out later in the more mature Shakespeare works.

Kauzlaric cast a mere six actors in the show—half of what a typical MSF Shakespeare production uses. Those six actors fly on and off the stage and in and out of elaborate costumes. One can only imagine the  show that is taking place in the wings conducted by Stage Manager Stefanie Din’s magic wand to make some of these changes happen.

Valentine (Martel Manning) and Proteus (Ian Geers) are the title characters, two best friends who are about to be separated when the play opens as Valentine goes off to seek his fortune and Proteus stays home to win his love.

From there follows courtships, tricks, betrayals, disguises and one of Shakespeare’s favorite tricks of the day—boy actors performing women who dress up as men.

Manning and Geers make fantastic youth who get caught up in one passion after another and for whom everything is an extreme. They are boisterous friends, forlorn lovers and energetic performers who are always fun to watch.

Manning is especially enjoyable in his interactions with his servant, played by Lauren Grace Thompson, who also plays Julia, Proteus’ lover. She’s able to push her somewhat slow master in the right direction in humorous exchanges. Manning is sympathetic from the get-go and is accessibly heroic and charismatic.

Thompson’s Julia captures a lovely range of emotions from a silly maiden who behaves almost peevishly to one deeply in love to one horribly wronged and heart-broken. She expresses complex emotions that she owns even while wishing she could discard them.

Geers manages to create a character who teeters back and forth from protagonist to antagonist, hero to villain. He is at once sympathetic and then falls from grace with the speed of Shakespeare’s later tragic heroes.

Alan Ball does his typically superior job as he flies in and out of role and costume. He plays Duke of Milan, Proteus’ mother, Launce—the play’s clown and Proteus’ servant, an outlaw and a musician. Each one is completely distinctive and each brings their own brand of comedy to the story.

Claire Joliffe’s primary role is that of Silvia, the object of both gentlemen’s affection as well as that of her father’s favored suitor Thurio (Michael Morrow). However, she also plays Launce’s flea-bitten cur of a dog, Crab, and has to make some of the fastest costume changes and quick exits and entrances. It’s delightful to watch her change from the sophisticated lady to the humble, miscreant hound.

Morrow rounds out the cast by playing four roles of both genders, two different species and different social classes. He is playful and constantly gives his fellow cast members lots to work with to elevate the humor of each scene.

Kauzlaric mixes in a dash of modern words and anachronistic actions that are all clearly intentional, done the way the creators of such shows as “Spring Awakening” and “Hamilton” did with their period pieces. They are choices that make the show sparkle and add a dash of familiarity for the audiences.

Angela Weber Miller designed an elegant set in which large gears turned a triptych of paintings to create different settings and to control the time of day with the turn of a painted sun to a crescent moon. It let things speed through without pauses from scene to scene.

The show lasts only 90 minutes—one of the few times you’ll go to a Shakespeare show that has no intermission nor does it need one. Kauzlaric also tackled the problematic ending of Two Gentlemen of Verona, one that would be hard to accept at any modern time, but especially not now when we are amid the #metoo movement.

However, he did not make an ending up out of whole cloth. Instead, he borrowed from “Love’s Labour Lost” for an ending that was still Shakespearean and feels like a much better fit than the traditional one. It is, in fact, one that the mature William Shakespeare, I think, would approve.