On a fine June evening, with Boscobel’s iconic view of the Hudson Highlands, the river itself and Constitution Marsh as a backdrop, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF) officially launched its 2014 season with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. A husband-and-wife team of HVSF regulars, Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson, along with a scene-stealing dog named Rex O’Reilly, anchor a game and talented ensemble of younger actors performing under the direction of Eric Tucker.
Written circa 1590, Two Gentlemen is one of William Shakespeare’s earliest plays, if not the very first. So, comparatively speaking, it’s unsophisticated and unpolished, the characters lacking depth and the abrupt turns of plot occasionally unpersuasive to modern ears. It’s by no means complex enough to be classified as one of the Bard’s “problem plays,” but its simplicity is deceptive, and the ending can still perplex us: The hero, Valentine (Ethan Saks), interrupts his duplicitous best friend Proteus (Andy Rindlisbach) as he’s threatening to rape Valentine’s betrothed Silvia (Susannah Millonzi). He then not only promptly forgives Proteus in the name of amity, but actually offers Silvia to him without so much as a by-your-leave to the lady. Proteus’ jilted fiancée Julia (Magan Wiles), who has been following him disguised as a male page, then swoons before being unmasked.
A comedy cobbled together from several Elizabethan sources in which male friendship is extolled as deeper and more enduring than romantic love, the play is a tough sell to contemporary audiences unless rendered with the deftest touch as the message-free, lightweight bauble that it was always meant to be. We’re supposed to walk away from it amused and delighted, not aghast at Proteus’ reprehensible behavior and Valentine’s overindulgence of his betrayal of both their friendship and his oaths of love to Julia. Proteus may read like an early sketch for the despicable Bertram in All’s Well that Ends Well, but he’s meant to be not so much a confirmed cad as a fickle young hothead, like Romeo when he’s distracted from moping over Rosaline the moment he spots Juliet at the Capulets’ ball.
Deflecting our attention from the play’s dicey ethics is not all that easy a thing to accomplish, but Tucker and his company manage it handily, thanks in large part to a spare, airy production in which sets are nonexistent and nothing seems tethered to the ground. Dance elements and body sculpture choreographed by Alexandra Beller are incorporated throughout to simulate architectural elements such as Julia’s tower window and even a fountain, with half a dozen actors spouting water from their mouths simultaneously. In the scene where several of the principals – fleeing Milan after Valentine is banished by Silvia’s father, the Duke (Leopold Lowe) – are captured by bandits, lopped-off tree limbs are held in place by recruits from the audience only so long as is necessary to suggest a forest. The bandits themselves are as inept and comically polite as the Pirates of Penzance, and no one in the play, including Silvia, ever seems to be in any real jeopardy even from the impulsive Proteus.
All the young principals hold their own beautifully, but the best moments in HVSF’s Two Gentlemen are delivered by the two veterans: Williamson as Julia’s brassy, sassy maid Lucetta (not to mention a gun-happy Second Outlaw) and Rhoads in the primary clown role as Launce, Proteus’ manservant. Launce is saddled with an uncooperative dog named Crab; and although he’s the only cast member with two understudies, Rex certainly didn’t need any help on opening night. The boxer had the audience in the palm of his paw the whole time. When he started humping his master’s side in the midst of one of Launce’s comedic soliloquies, it was difficult to tell, based on Rhoads’s alarmed expression, whether the dog was extraordinarily well-trained or just a spotlight hound doing improv.
This ensemble excels at multitasking, with several actors playing multiple parts, Millonzi doubling as dance captain, Williamson as voice captain and Rindlisbach credited with composing the infectious original music accompanying the show. Rebecca Lustig’s inspired costumes are thrown-together thrift-store finds from no particular era in slightly clashing colors. All the production elements mesh gently enough to keep the tenor of the play appropriately light and breezy, letting us believe that redemption is always possible and forgiveness as fluid as the water spurting from an actor’s puffed-out cheeks.
The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona runs through the end of August in repertory with the Bard’s Othello and Pierre Corneille’s The Liar. Performances of Two Gentlemen at Boscobel House and Gardens’ 540-seat outdoor pavilion are scheduled for July 3, 6, 8, 12, 14, 18, 20, 22, 26, 28, 31, August 3, 6, 10, 13, 26 and 29; check the HVSF website at https://hvshakespeare.org for alternate venues. Performances begin at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 7 p.m. on all other nights. Ticket prices range from $21 to $79 depending on night of the week, seat location and age of audience member. Package discounts are offered. To order or for more info, call the box office at (845) 265-9575 or visit the website.
Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, July 3-August 29, 7 or 8 p.m., $21-$79, Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison; (845) 265-9575, https://hvshakespeare.org.