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Man to Man

[whitespace] The Two Gentlemen of Verona Brothers in Arms: Mike Ryan and Hans Altwies prove that man's best friend is really his best friend.

Friendship saves the day in 'Gentlemen'

By Heather Zimmerman

SAY WHAT YOU will about The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of Shakespeare's first plays. It is invariably held in lesser regard than some of his masterpieces--and maybe not without reason. But nobody can accuse it of false advertising. The play may broach everything from heterosexual romance to canine fidelity, but at its heart is the intense friendship of Valentine and Proteus, the pair of the title.

A comedy in both the modern and the traditional definitions, The Two Gentlemen of Verona offers both humor and the requisite finale of marriage and general amends, and Shakespeare Santa Cruz stages a smart, modernized production of the play that's plenty of fun but that also fully exposes the uneasiness of its final accord.

In this hipster update, Valentine and Proteus ride off to seek their respective fortunes on Vespas. Valentine, much to Proteus' sorrow, leaves Verona for the favors of a duke's court in Milan; Proteus goes to woo his love, Julia, but soon his father decides to send him to Milan as well. When Proteus arrives, he becomes smitten with the duke's daughter, Silvia, who is secretly engaged to Valentine. However, the duke wants to marry Silvia off to a wealthy friend, and overcome by his attraction, Proteus betrays Valentine by alerting the duke to the clandestine wedding plans. The duke banishes Valentine from Milan.

However much effort the two friends devote to romancing women, director Tim Ocel keeps the focus on the complex relationship between Valentine and Proteus. Mike Ryan truly makes Proteus live up to his name, taking the character through many emotional changes. By turns he is jealous, infatuated and scheming--but always both passionate and vulnerable. Hans Altwies' Valentine is likable--strong but not immovably stoic, and undeniably a little goofy when it comes to romance.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The production underscores the male focus of the play with qualities that have been branded as stereotypically "masculine." The incidental music roars with aggressive, screeching electric guitar riffs, and the almost colorless ultramodern set feels cold and ruthless. A particularly provocative set piece is a billboard that runs the length of the right side of the stage advertising a website and depicting a bikini-clad woman flanked by two handsome, identical men who are obviously leering. But both men are wearing sunglasses, and it's hard to tell where their gazes are directed. They could just as easily be looking at each other.

Women are a kind of currency in this world. Silvia's father tries to sell her off in marriage, Proteus views her as a prize, and at the wealthy duke's court, a courtesan lingers in the background. But Verona's women are hardly victims. Silvia is bright and self-possessed, and Courtney Peterson renders her elegantly and commandingly. Even the seemingly doomed-for-heartbreak Julia is confident enough to go after what she wants.

The strength of the female characters also fuels the question of just who controls whom. Silvia sees right through Proteus' deceit, and her steadfast rejection utterly torments him. And as usual in Shakespeare's plays, servants Speed and Launce (Colman Domingo and Gregg Coffin) boast much quicker wits than their masters. In some of the funnier scenes, we learn that, sly as he is, Launce does answer to someone: his apathetic dog, Crab.

However, there's no question of who man's best friend really is at the end. Despite his betrayal and even an attempted rape of Silvia, Proteus wins Valentine's forgiveness, and friendship wins out so completely that Valentine even convinces the spurned Julia to forgive Proteus. And this production is modernized enough that we can leave imagining the resulting therapy sessions. Talk about not loving wisely, but too well.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona runs in repertory at the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, UCSC, Santa Cruz through Aug. 28. (459.2159)

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From the August 4-11, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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