California Shakespeare Theater is doing more Shakespeare than usual this season. Since Jonathan Moscone took over as artistic director in 2000, he’s brought in more than the occasional non-Shakespeare production the company had done before that but at least one play by someone else each year, and since 2004 it’s been half-and-half. This season’s four plays are also split evenly between the Bard and other authors—there’s Titus Andronicus and Taming of the Shrew alongside Shaw’s Candida—but in a way there are three Shakespearean works in the mix because the one completely new play, The Verona Project, is based on Two Gentlemen of Verona, sometimes believed to be William Shakespeare’s first play, and far from his best.
The second world premiere to play Cal Shakes’s Bruns Amphitheater (just a year after the first, Octavio Solis’s John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven), Verona is written, directed and composed by Amanda Dehnert, who also has a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar playing right now in Ashland with a female Caesar.
When I first heard about the project, I wondered what the point was of doing a Shakespeare comedy if you weren’t going to be using his language. It didn’t help when I heard that the servant Launce, whose speech about his dog I’d used as an audition piece back in high school, isn’t even in this play. I have fond memories of Cal Shakes’s 1983 production of Two Gents (back when it was still the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival) with Dakin Matthews as Launce and Howard Swain as Speed. (I’ve seen the play since then—the company did it again in 1992 and 1999—but it that ’83 production that really stands out.)
The good news is that The Verona Project isn’t just Two Gents: The Musical but a completely different play based on the same characters and basic plot. Its themes, concerns and imagery are largely different from Shakespeare’s, as is the quirky poetry of Dehnert’s language.
At first the setup may not be reassuring. The conceit is that the Verona Project is a rock band with a self-titled concept album, and it’s all about love! The stage very much looks like a music studio set up for a rock band with a whole lot of instruments, the blue-green walls of Daniel Ostling’s set sporting various curious illustrations: ravens, a whale, a death tarot card, the silhouette of a tree.
But as soon as the band starts telling the story, it becomes clear that Dehnert is doing something really interesting with it, adding a fairytale quality of magical realism. It all takes place in the town of True (probably a play on the Latin verus, meaning truth, from which “Verona” may or may not be derived) in “a time and place much like our own, but just different enough to be interesting.”
Best pals Valentine and Proteus are two boys with matching lives in matching houses with matching families. They’re tied to each other by a tin-can telephone string, but they start to diverge when Val’s mother dies and his father retreats into himself, and then further when Pro falls for literally the only girl in town, Julia.
Valentine feels neglected by Proteus, missing the days when it was just the two of them, and he decides to leave town to seek a new life. He finds a job in the big city in a wordsmith’s shop, writing poetry to order, and fall in love at first sight with Sylvio (Silvia in Shakespeare’s play), a client who’s there to get a poem written for his wedding. Sylvio is the son of the local duke, and is being married off despite not being in love with his flighty fiancée, Thuria (another gender-swapped role, originally Thurio).
Proteus soon leaves True as well to find Val, and after his sad goodbyes with Julia he pretty much forgets all about her. When he finds Valentine, Proteus becomes jealous of Val’s happiness in love with Sylvio. He decides that he’d only thought he was in love with Julia because it was never like this, and decides that now he’ll find love—with Sylvio! No good can come of this, and no good does.
Proteus is obviously a terrible friend, fickle and selfish, but Dehnert does a good job of making him more sympathetic than he is in the original play. Played with roguish charm by Dan Clegg, Pro is a creature of pure impulse, not just unconcerned with the consequences of his actions but unwilling or unable to see that there are any. Even the Duke’s motivation for making Sylvio marry someone he doesn’t love is heartbreakingly compassionate in its way.
The band takes turns telling the story, so it’s not always obvious when the person who’s talking is significant. Certainly it’s obvious when a character narrates something about himself in third person, but it takes a while to realize that Harold Pierce gets all the lines about whether time stood still or sped up for someone, or whether we were going into a flashback—that he’s the guy who speaks for time, essentially, and occasionally apologizes on time’s behalf when it can’t be altered to make things easier for our young lovers.
Pierce also plays the chatty, always-moving messenger Speed, with a friendly, easygoing curiosity about everything around him. Arwen Anderson is marvelously funny as the eccentric Julia, who keeps secrets of her own so that people won’t know she’s a “weirdo.” Refreshingly candid herself, Julia has an understanding but exasperated air of always questioning, because she knows her lover isn’t anywhere near as candid as she.
It’s a strong cast all around that’s even more of a treat than it might be otherwise just because it’s nice to see all these young actors from smaller local companies and ACT’s MFA program holding court on the Cal Shakes stage. That’s also how I felt about Berkeley Rep’s Yellowjackets a few years back, but Verona is easily a better play.
Nate Trinrud exudes sensitive vulnerability as Valentine, Philip Mills is a stout-hearted Sylvio, and Adam Yazbeck is a cold and controlling Duke. The strong-voiced Marisa Duchowny is priceless in a number of shot mom roles, and Elana Wright is a delight as Thuria, Sylvio’s seemingly dingy fiancée who’s totally untroubled by him being in love with another man. Dressed in pleasingly decadent getups by Melissa Torchia (whose outfits for the other characters are more casual), Thuria gets one of the play’s best lines after she says, “Who we are is partly made up of what we want,” and Proteus insists that it’s “Not part—all.” “No, I think only part,” Thuria replies thoughtfully, “or else I would be hats.”
Just to illustrate the kind of thing I love about Dehnert’s script, Julia is from “the other side of the tracks,” except they explain that there actually aren’t any tracks because there are no trains. The story’s full of offbeat touches, like the dad who hasn’t moved out of his armchair in fifteen years, where he stares raptly through telescopes to see if anything out there has changed. It’s also full of ghosts, with the young lovers’ dead parents more involved in the action than their living ones. A few lines of actual Shakespeare from Two Gents are scattered throughout the play to tremendous effect.
The songs are in a very poppy rock vein, and a few of them are just terrific, including a sweet, catchy love song called “Meaning of O” in the program but introduced in dialogue just as “O.” The three women sing a haunting cemetery ode, “The Quiet,” and Anderson has a delightfully rocking, angsty number “Julia says.” A few of the other songs are shakier, and some of their lyrics occasionally become impenetrably abstract, at least at first listen. The last number, “When We Were Young,” is far from the strongest song lyrically or musically, but it’s definitely the kind of upbeat, sentimental, sweepingly thematic ditty that musicals usually end with.
It’s a marvelously witty, touching and poetic reinvention of Shakespeare’s story that doesn’t feel at all like nearly three hours, even on a somewhat chilly evening like opening night. Bring layers when you go, but by all means, go.
Show #66 of 2011, attended July 9.