Shakespeare scholars date The Two Gentlemen of Verona at or near the very beginning of the Bard’s body of work. The titular gentles are men only just, and the piece itself remains a lumbering, impulsive adolescent with limbs all disproportionate to its body. Story seeds that would flower beautifully later in Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night (and other works) stick out here like pimples on prom night, and tonally the thing may as well take place atop the San Andreas Fault. In brief: Proteus (named for the mythical shapeshifter) abandons his lover, Julia, and sells out his best friend, Valentine, before attempting to rape Sylvia, Valentine’s girl. Proteus’ repentance once Valentine gives him an 11-line tongue-lashing (to which director P.J. Paparelli has added a blood-capsule-smeary wrestling match) is abrupt but plausible enough. That all concerned forgive his vile crimes instantly? Nutballs! That upon burying the hatchet with his brah, Valentine selflessly offers to hand over Sylvia, who loves him, to Proteus, her would-be rapist? Huh. And you say we don’t force our ninth-graders to read this one?
David Bevington, who edited the Complete Works of Shakespeare that’s been making my bookshelves sag since college, is of the learned opinion that even if all this didn’t seem quite as batty to sophisticated audiences of the early 1590s as it does now, it probably still registered as weird. So this just might be the Bard of Avon thumbing his nose at his medium as impishly as his descendants Trey Parker and Matt Stone do.
Since there’s no solving the arbitrary and mutable attitudes and motivations, Papparelli dials up the camp while making some grating moves to contemporize things. Scene-setting surtitles are appended with eye-rolling kickers (“At court. A nightclub. The kind with $20 drinks. Ouch.”), and Walt Spangler has tattooed his aluminum-paneled, oven-interior set with familiar corporate logos to suggest an anonymous status-conscious suburb. (One wonders if Shakespeare Theatre Company thought of asking the fast-food joint, the brewing company, the bank, or the condom maker to kick in some sponsorship dollars.) Two catwalks enable some impressively spry fight choreography by Paul Dennhardt in Act 2. Paparelli stops the action to have his cast sing Glee-earnest versions of semi-contemporary pop songs now and again, including not one but two U2 songs (squirm-inducing, and I promise I have more U2 in my iTunes library than you do). The exiled outlaws in the woods (there are exiled outlaws in the woods) open one scene with a drunken singalong of The Divinyls’ 1991 hit “I Touch Myself,” which is, no mistake, a fabulous song, but its inclusion here seems more than a little, well, masturbatory. Using tunes that kids who’re 17 years old in 2012 actually listen to would’ve made more sense, though they’d probably be unrecognizable to the average Shakespeare Theatre ticket-buyer and, let’s be honest, to me.
All this desperate embroidery—OMG, I forgot to tell you that some characters totally communicate by text message in a Shakespeare play, LOL!—mostly feels about as hip and necessary as your Dockers-wearing dad reciting Odd Future lyrics. The cast, for what it’s worth, does a good job across the board of making its characters’ decisions seem, you know, not utterly insane, especially Miriam Silverman as that poor doormat Julia. Nick Dillenburg, as the moral changeling Proteus, comes off as much more likable and dimensional than Andrew Veenstra’s Fabio-haired Valentine. In a show this daft, that the most inconstant character becomes the most rewarding constant is, to quote a third U2 song, “a dangerous idea that almost makes sense.”