Proteus and Julia

Michael Rupprecht is Proteus and Francheza Suaiso is Julia in "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at Napa Valley College.

When you enter the theater to watch Reed Martin’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” you’ll be treated to film stills from some of the classic John Hughes movies of the 1980s: “Pretty in Pink,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” and my favorite, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Over the speaker comes Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and Paul Young’s “Every Time You Go Away.” It brought me back to a more innocent time. When life was private and desire was simple. Things were slow and America was safe. Teenagers could have their drama without the reflexive echo and amplification of their neuroses by social media.

Then, with the first lines of Shakespeare’s dense and somewhat incomprehensible verse, you are transported back another 400 years, to a time when the imagination of the average theater goer was way simpler than that of the 1980’s teenager. But stick with it. The magic of Shakespeare is that, once one acclimates to the complexity of the language, and with good actors, the play comes to life, and you can settle in for an engaging evening of theater.

Martin said that he chose to set, “Two Gents” as they call it, in the ‘80s mainly because of the fraternity-like relationship of the play’s two protagonists: Proteus and Valentine. The ‘80s were a heyday for male dominance and focus, but the concerns of Molly Ringwald’s three characters in “Pretty in Pink,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles” become the most important parts of the movies.

Likewise, it’s Silvia whose affections are the fulcrum on which Proteus and Valentine balance their relationship. The action of “Two Gents” centers on who gets Silvia. Is it Thurio, whom her father, the Duke of Milan, prefers? Or is it Proteus, who has committed himself to Julia in Verona, but he seems to have forgotten her once he sees Silvia in Milan? Or is it Valentine, who, in a baby blue suit, white leather tie and slicked back blond hair is the suave, sexy most likely contender? This “Two Gents” is filled with a cast of students who act their hearts out. Their enthusiasm is palpable and give the production an air of excitement.

Though, as is so often the case with actors who are not as comfortable with the stage, they speak too quickly. Lines were spoken like rapid fire gun shots, not like actual essence that propels the drama forward. I wanted them to slow down, really indulge in the beautiful language. That very density and complication of Shakespeare’s English, in addition to the timeless themes addressed in the plays, are why we, 400 years later, are spending our Saturday night in the Studio Theater of the Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center.

You could tell the professionals from the student actors anytime Jessica Romero or Chad Yarish came on stage. Yarish’s Speed and his dog, Crab—a real-life dog, nonplussed though he was—are hilarious. When he spoke to the audience—Shakespeare broke the fourth wall before anyone else—you could tell by his confidence he had a relaxed command of the script that the others did not.

Likewise Romero’s Lucetta really made evident the sarcasm her character elicits in the script. She gets the line that makes the play famous. “Love is blind,” which is such a common idea in our collective consciousness, a nearly universal human behavior, that it may now be cliché.

Shakespeare did not always write winners. The canon of his 37 plays is riddled with turkeys. In an interview, Martin said that “Henry VIII” is “very bad”. And, when I asked a Shakespeare scholar if “Two Gents” was his worst, he said that actually “King John” and “Timon of Athens” are far worse and rarely, if ever, performed. Another Shakespeare scholar said that “The Taming of the Shrew” is now unwatchable given its misogynistic elements. Even the title — a shrew being a difficult woman needing to be “tamed” like a wild animal, so that she can be a dutiful and submissive wife — does not fly today.

As such, that is why Martin directed Silvia to slap Valentine when he offers her up to Proteus, like some unit of chattel. But there is no place in the script for Valentine to respond, and he goes on, like so many men would when they are so conceited and self-involved that they are incapable of comprehending the damage they do, and wishes Proteus well in his life with Silvia.

And then, Martin has directed Proteus, Valentine, and the rest of the cast leave the stage, while Julia and Silvia remain behind, defiant and angry, giving each other knowing looks, indicating that these men are oblivious to their undercurrents of rage and revolt.

It would be interesting to write a sequel to “Two Gentlemen of Verona” in which Silvia, who is unhappily and unwillingly betrothed to Proteus, with Julia’s help, gets her revenge on him, in some creative and devious, maybe even carnal way. “Two Gentlewoman of Milan” as a title would be too docile. Or is that too literal? Calling them “Gentlewoman,” when they are anything but, may be a great bit of irony in this hypothetical play.

As it stands, though, we are left with a drama so rooted in its historical culture that the attempt to modernize it through creative direction, only emphasizes how far removed we are from the play’s original context. Silvia’s slapping Valentine across the face is like a shot across the bow, signalling the beginning of a war. Though, given the ubiquity of the hashtag #MeToo, that war may be well underway.

“Two Gentlemen of Verona” plays in the Studio Theater at the Performing Arts Center at Napa Valley College on Sept. 20 and 21 at 7 p.m. and Sept. 22 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for military, students or seniors, and $8 for children 12 and younger.

It will be performed at Copia on Sept. 27 and 29 and 7 p.m. and Sept. 24 and 26 at 10 a.m. Admission to these performances are free, with seating on a first come, first served basis.

You can buy tickets at performingartsnapavalley.org.

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John Henry Martin thinks that America is in uncharted territory. If you know where we’re going, he would like you to tell him. Let him know at jhm@johnhenrymartin.com.