‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’

The Rutgers Theater Company transports the Bard to 1950s Italy.

By: Stuart Duncan
   Most scholars believe that The Two Gentlemen of Verona was one of Shakepeare’s earliest works, perhaps as early as 1592. That would place it before Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet.
   Certainly it is not the polished work of later comedies, nor does it contain the powerful imagery. Oh, a few perhaps: "Oh how this spring of love resembleth the unseen glory of an April day." Or, "Black men are pearls in beautious ladies’ eyes." But they are few and far apart.
   Yet one can note the seeds of future plot lines and characters — the girl pretending to be a lad; the ostracized royalty living as outlaws in the nearby forest; the mix-and-match lovers, yearning to be put in proper order. All of this is packed into a fun-filled production by the Rutgers Theater Company in the Levin Theater, directed by William Esper.
   It’s a youthful evening — actors trying out comedy techniques, some succeeding better than others. For those who need plot: The two gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine, close friends at first, but later rivals for the hand of Silvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan, who is, however, betrothed to Thurio. Proteus forgets his old love, Julia, plays his friend false, and brings about his banishment. When Valentine is thus forced to leave the court, he becomes a bandit, and in the course of time Silvia falls into his hands. A party from the court comes to the rescue, including Thurio and Proteus, the latter attended by a page who is really his old love, Julia, disguised as a boy. Valentine’s conduct is so manly that the Duke freely bestows his daughter upon him, and the repentant Proteus contents himself with marrying Julia.
   For those who enjoy the Mason Gross productions by searching for future stars, there is much to admire. Thomas Pelphrey and J.P. Matthews play the pair of title characters in contrasting styles. The former is an undergraduate senior, is tall and moves like a dancer; the latter is in his final (third) year of graduate school and already has worked in regional theaters around the country. Both would seem to have solid prospects.
   Jamie Smithson, also in his final year of the graduate program, has all the attributes of a natural comic as he plays Speed, servant to Valentine. Others who impress: Raymond McAnally, Heather Kendzierski (as Silvia), Sarah Koestner, plus a cute little West Highland terrier named Sir Winston, who steals several scenes.
   There is a wonderful moment when a trio wanders in to sing "Who Is Silvia?", and everyone in the company adopts a heavy Italian accent (the evening is set in Italy, 1950). Some can even be understood much of the time.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona continues at the Levin Theater, Mason Gross Performing Arts Center, Rutgers University, 85 George St., New Brunswick, through Feb. 8. Performances: Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets cost $10-$20. For information, call (732) 932-7511. On the Web: www.masongross.rutgers.edu