A priest and his beaming altar boy, a winged mime on roller skates, a flock of nuns, and a bunch of guys in towels walk onto a stage. No, it’s not an old joke. It’s the beginning of a sprightly, visually splendid new production of Shakespeare’s early comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the third installment of Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2017 summer season.
The play’s not necessarily the thing in this show. One of Shakespeare’s earliest works, it’s a romantic comedy about a youth all too willing to betray his best friend and forsake the woman he himself loves so he can woo the woman his friend has fallen in love with. There’s a lot of funny comedy between these four characters and their servants, but the trick is to make this play appealing despite its main plotline.
This is where director Art Manke’s ingenious production excels. Its many delights come from the visual wit of his staging on Annie Smart’s core set of stone archways and catwalks (co-designed for this show with Chrissy Curl), in cahoots with B. Modern’s absolutely fabulous, mid-century, Euro-chic costumes.
Valentine (an earnest Rowan Vickers), a young nobleman from Verona, departs for the ducal court of Milan to make his fortune—leaving behind his best bud, Proteus (Brian Smolin, fun to watch, even in such a thankless part), who has just discovered that the woman he adores, Julia (Grace Rao), also cares for him.
But when Proteus’ father sends him to Milan, too, he falls instantly for Silvia (the beauteous and wily Tristan Cunningham), celebrity daughter of the strict, powerful Duke of Milan (Allen Gilmore). Against her father’s wishes, Silvia and Valentine have already exchanged secret vows of love, but that doesn’t stop Proteus from getting his old friend banished so he himself can make the moves on the profoundly uninterested Silvia. Meanwhile, Julia disguises herself as a boy and travels to Milan to find out what’s become of her sweetheart.
Okay, that’s already more than you need to know about the plot. What’s fun is the way Manke puts it all together. He envisions life at court as one lavish cocktail party, where the glitterati swill drinks and flourish cigarettes, while an army paparazzi snap their every move. Modern’s extraordinary black, white, grey and silver costume palette is a symphony of stripes, checks, solids, and plaids, with an occasional striking zebra-print thrown in. Think Mad Men and Breakfast at Tiffany’s crossed with the witty surrealism of a Federico Fellini movie (Manke’s stated inspiration).
Valentine’s servant, the aptly-named Speed, sports those wings and skates, and Adam Schroeder is terrific in the role, especially trying to explain to his clueless master the code by which Silvia is declaring her love for him. His counterpart, Launce, servant to Proteus, is a female here, and Patty Gallagher plays her with plenty of slapstick, sad-clown brio in her bowler hat and cane (reminiscent of the Fellini heroine in Juliet of the Spirits.)
These two servants trade wisecracks like a stand-up comedy routine at “Club Milano.” Launce’s ode to the joys of his “milkmaid” paramour is delivered by Gallagher to a “milk-man” in white shortalls (Joshua Orlando) who bumps and grinds across the nightclub stage. And Gallagher has the poise and charm to share the stage with a mellow black dog called Crab, who steals his every scene. In other inventive staging, Proteus delivers his soliloquy about his romantic dilemma in a confessional, putting the priest to sleep. Attempting to serenade his new beloved, Proteus croons the “Who is Silvia? What is she?” song into a vintage radio mic under her balcony.
The nuns and priest on the margins suggest the idea of faith, in contrast to the faithlessness Proteus shows to, well, just about everybody. Manke suggests solidarity between Silvia and Julia, who each admire the other’s loyalty to the man she loves. That everyone so easily forgives Proteus is the mark of a dramatist not yet in full control of his art, but Manke, Modern, and company are in full control of this delicious production.
The Santa Cruz Shakespeare production of ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ plays through Sept. 3 at the Audrey Stanley Grove, DeLaveaga Park. For tickets and info, call 460-6399, or visit santacruzshakespeare.org.