I have to admit I was skeptical about “The Verona Project,” which had its world premiere at the California Shakespeare Theater last weekend.
The only thing I knew about the author/director of the work, Amanda Dehnert, was that she is also director of “Julius Caesar” in this year’s the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and she has cast a woman as Caesar, which seems to me, you know, odd.
“The Verona Project,” furthermore, was described as inspired by, but not limited to, Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
“Two Gentlemen,” one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, is not often performed although it is a lively, witty and fast-paced work that includes a dog.
The plot derives from questions of love versus friendship (and includes a classic passage in which Launce, a servant, contemplates the things he does for his dog, Crab, that he would not do for a human.
Valentine and Proteus are long-time friends. At the opening of the play, Valentine is heading to Milan to serve the duke; Proteus doesn’t want to leave Milan because he is in love with Julia. When his father packs him off anyway, he and Julia exchange rings at testimony to their undying love. This, for the aptly named Proteus, lasts only until he arrives in Milan and finds out that Valentine is now in love too, with Silvia, the daughter of the duke, his boss.
Proteus, moved by Valentine’s descriptions of her perfection, falls in love with her, too. The duke, however, wants Silvia to marry Another; and so Valentine and Silvia are planning to run away. Proteus sees his chance, tells the duke, and Valentine is banished.
Meanwhile, Julia, back in Verona, is worried about what has become of her love and decides to travel, disguised as a boy to Milan. She is shocked to discover Proteus telling Sylvia his old love, Julia, is dead; so, he adds, is Valentine. Proteus employs Julia as a page to send his messages to Silvia, who proves to be a woman of character and wants nothing to do with Proteus. She decides to run away and find Valentine, who is not dead, but has been captured by bandits outside of Milan, and in short order he has become their captain.
Silvia. pursued into the woods by her father, Proteus, and Julia, is captured by the bandits who are taking her to their captain when she is rescued by Proteus.
Now comes the sticky part, which confounds many viewers and directors. Proteus, finding himself still scorned by the woman he’s just rescued, threatens to rape her, only to be thwarted by the appearance of the bandit captain, Valentine. He denounces Proteus for a long list of failings. Proteus apologizes. Valentine accepts his apology and then, in one baffling line — “All that was mine in Silvia, I give thee” — appears to be offering his love to his faithless friend.
Julia, who has caught up with the trio, hears this, swoons, her hat falls off and her identity is revealed along with her hair. Proteus decides he loves Julia after all, and in the most inexplicable plot twist of all, the two women still agree to marry their erratic lovers.
Different views have offered different rationales for this unsatisfactory ending such as: Shakespeare didn’t write the Silvia line; he didn’t write the play; he was collaborating and someone else wrote that part; and he did write the Silvia line but doesn’t mean what we think it does.
As a result, perhaps, “Two Gentlemen of Verona” is not often presented, or when it is the directors try different approaches, such as, when I last saw the play at Ashland, when it was set in Amish country of Pennsylvania and the two gentlemen, now Amish lads head off to serve the duke of what must be upstate New York. The result sufficiently distracted viewers from wondering why Julia and Silvia still wanted to marry the goofballs.
Now to Orinda and Cal Shakes new production. What Denhert extracts from “Two Gentlemen of Verona” are the four main characters (although Silvia becomes Silvo in a bit of gender-bending), a couple of Shakespeare’s speeches, and the notions of love versus friendship.
The presentation is entirely novel: The story is told in part concert, part play by an extremely talented band of actor/musicians; indeed, the cast is stronger than the material at many points. The stage is set as if for a concert or perhaps a rehearsal, but throughout the work the actors step forward, sometimes guitar in hand, to play their roles.
Crab, the dog, is gone; added in is a more elaborate backstory of the four characters, much of which is strange: The play is now set in the land of True, all the characters have parent problems; Valentine and Silvio’s mothers are dead and one thinks his mother is a tree while the other carries about a can of peaches, his remembrance of his mother. The tree does have a role to play. Proteus’ personal problems might be attributed to his parents: His father apparently has sat in an armchair for a couple of decades and watches the world through a telescope. Most peculiar, however, is Julia, who is introduced has having a secret, which turns out to be that her parents are dead but her house is alive and she has geraniums growing in her oven. Or something like that. Does this add to the story? Well, no, but it does make for entertaining moments.
Does it rock? Well, sort of. The exuberance, as well as the splendid talent of the cast, carry it through to a muddled conclusion, which does, however, jettison the attempted rape. The musical score, like the dialogue, is not particularly strong (“It’s always all about you, Proteus.”) but the cast is so engaging they carry the audience through the weaker as well as stronger parts.
As someone who entered the Bruns amphitheater prepared to bolt at intermission if it lived up to my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised, stayed cheerfully to the end and enjoyed most of it, although I would have preferred the dog to mother issues.
“The Verona Project” is bold, imaginative and fun — a fitting follow-up to the first play in Cal Shakes 2011 season, which was an utterly brilliant staging of “Titus Andronicus,” another Shakespeare work that rarely makes it into summer festivals, due to challenges, which include rape, murder, cannibalism and lopping off of hands.
Clearly, Cal Shakes is willing to take risks, challenge its audience, expand horizons and also, entertain. For this, it deserves an enthusiastic standing ovation.