Young at heart: Luke Wygodny and Kenny Metzger romp in SU Drama’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
So when the first weekend of the current Syracuse University Drama Department production played to sold-out houses, you can tell it was from more than just the people who wanted another notch on their Shakespearean belts. This sow’s ear, when driven by the right director, can yield some treasures.
The cast for Two Gentlemen is the smallest for any Shakespearean play, and the plot is easy to follow, despite one instance of cross-dressing and mistaken identity. The two gentlemen of the title are shortish, dark-haired Proteus (Luke Wygodny), given to mischief and horseplay, and tall, fair-haired Valentine (Kenny Metzger), a romantic swain. Their hometown, Verona, later the place where Romeo and Juliet will tangle, is thought to be a bit backward and provincial. So Valentine is sent by his father to the tonier burg of Milan, where the young man can get buffed up at the court of the Duke (Danny Skinner). Reluctant to leave his demure blonde sweetheart Julia (Sammi Lappin), Proteus answers the commands of his dark-browed father Antonio (Jordan Hunter Siegel), who also wants his son to learn finer ways. Before parting, Proteus and Julia exchange rings, and he swears eternal love along with promising to return.
That vow does not last long. Once in Milan Proteus finds that Valentine has fallen in love with the princess, Silvia (Liz Tancredi), a tall, courtly redhead. Proteus instantly falls in love with her too, betraying both left-behind Julia and his pal Valentine. Heedless of the friend’s jonesing, Valentine confides that the Duke has locked his daughter in a tower to ward off suitors because he really wants her to marry, against her wishes, Thurio (Carlos Palencia Jr.), a fatuous but wealthy fop. Valentine further confides that he plans to free Silvia from confinement and run off with her. Proteus immediately betrays this subterfuge to the Duke, who captures Valentine and banishes him. In a forest, Valentine meets up with a band of scruffy-looking outlaws, who tell him they are also banished gentlemen. Misrepresenting his story, Valentine is made their leader.
Meanwhile, back in Verona Julia is persuaded by her clever servant Lucetta (Farasha Baylock) to dress as a pageboy named Sebastian so that she can journey to Milan to find out what’s happened. Proteus somehow hires Sebastian, who quickly perceives his love for Silvia, and, heartbreakingly, delivers her own ring, Proteus’ keepsake, to Silvia. At the same time Sebastian realizes Silvia really doesn’t care for Proteus but is still pining for Valentine, whom she thinks is dead.
Defenders of Two Gentlemen speak of the playwright’s immaturity in what is probably his first venture. Along with some nasty plot turns, some three-way scenes have a way of leaving one character stranded, and some of the best bits are isolated from the rest of the action. Proteus’ servant Launce (Jon Schauss), the first of Shakespeare’s many wise clowns, delivers a series of terrific monologues accompanied by his dog Crab (the well-trained Zinger McArdle), but each one feels like an entr’acte.
Much of the delight in this production arises from director Elizabeth Ingram’s inventiveness in overcoming the deficiencies of the text. If Two Gentlemen is short on the low-comedy antics that kept the groundlings going, she brings in ace choreographer David Wanstreet to fill the stage with Elizabethan dances with music by Nathan Hurwitz, not all of it period. Fight coordinator Felix Ivanov inserts balletic grace and timing to the fisticuffs.
The more demanding task for student actors is to humanize the fairly lengthy speeches of the principals, especially those devoted to exposition in the first hour. Dialect coach Malcolm Ingram favors clarity of diction in elevated American stage English, the kind we are meant to understand instantly. Each of the four principals is a contrasting physical type and faces entirely different work to do. One cannot have a favorite, but Luke Wygodny as the fickle Proteus (the name means “changeable”) has to convince us he’s a rascal and not a cad. It starts with his mischievous snitching of Valentine’s cap in the first scene.
Sammi Lappin’s ultra-innocent Julia wins us over in an early scene where she is not yet mature enough to acknowledge what she feels for Proteus and tears up his love letter, only to kiss the fallen shreds. Her transvestiture is not sustained like Rosalind’s As You Like It, and her greater burden while wearing pants is to remain faithful to Proteus while not appearing a fool.
Silvia and Valentine rise by venturing against type. Liz Tancredi arrives with a queenly presence, which she restrains in her confinement, and reverses when it appears that Proteus is going to violate her. Kenny Metzger’s Valentine could at first be mistaken for Dudley Do-Right, but the character reveals some hidden capacities when he joins and leads the outlaws.
Scene-stealing Carlos Palencia Jr. brings a hilarious Antonio Banderas accent (actually Banderas as Puss-in-Boots in Shrek) to the villainous Thurio, and Danny Skinner excels as the pompous and self-deceiving Duke, an often unrewarding role for a student, playing someone three times his age.
Bethany Post’s bright costumes have an MGM-Elizabethan feel, conducive to comedy. Seurkee Cho’s scenic design, lighted by Robin Dill and Katherine Elizabeth Walters, has the wide proscenium feel of 18th-century theater, when The Two Gentlemen of Verona first entered the repertory. At the Syracuse Stage complex, a display in the lobby of the Storch Theater explains how the artistic team developed what we see through trial sketches and models.
This production runs through Sunday, Feb. 28. See Times Table for information.