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Hip Willie

Center Stage Gives Shakespeare A Hippie Makeover In A Vietnam-War Era Verona

FREE LOVE: Rodney Hicks and Angela Robinson get it on.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 3/2/2005

Two Gentlemen of Verona

At Center Stage through March 27

The important thing to remember about this ’70s rock-musical adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona is that it is not William Shakespeare’s play with a little bit of singing and dancing thrown in. As Center Stage’s program states, it is merely adapted from the play and makes little pretense of being a faithful rendition. It was written in 1971 by Obie award-winning playwright John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) and Mel Shapiro, with music by Galt MacDermot (Hair), for a tour of New York parks performed out of a truck. So Guare and company intermixed Shakespeare’s dialogue with vernacular songs in English and Spanish, all filled with the sense of whimsy, sexual freedom, and political strife that consumed the era. The result was an irreverent and intriguing take on the play that ended up on Broadway and won a Tony for Best Musical in 1972.

Much of what made Guare’s adaptation a success was that it relishes the absurdity of Shakespeare’s story. While the brightly colored set and almost confectionery costumes of Center Stage’s production suggest that wacky fun will be had by all, the show drags at times. Maybe it was the fact that the company is still soldiering on without its lead, Lisa Datz, who was injured during a preview performance, but for all its supposed wild-and-craziness, Two Gentlemen seems more like it’s pretending to have fun than really having it.

In Shakespeare’s play, Valentine heads to Milan to seek his fortune, leaving his best friend, Proteus, behind in Verona to woo Julia. Proteus wins Julia’s heart, only to be sent to Milan by his father, where he falls in love with Silvia, the Duke’s daughter. Silvia has fallen for Valentine, meanwhile, even though her father wants her to marry his lackey, Thurio. Valentine hatches a plan to save Silvia, jealous Proteus rats Valentine out, and if that wasn’t complicated enough, Julia goes to Milan dressed as a man to find her fickle love. Everyone eventually ends up in the woods, where Proteus tries to rape Silvia (always fun in a comedy), Valentine saves her, then both Valentine and Julia unfathomably forgive Proteus, and just about everyone gets married.

So, you can see, Shakespeare had already set the weirdness bar pretty high. Undaunted, this musical version throws in an inflatable heart, a bear that looks straight out of Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree, an Elvis angel who rides a tiny motorcycle, and a calypso number that’s both totally adorable and too dirty to describe. But Guare’s adaptation offers some serious elements, as well, which ground the production in a contemporary reality. Julia isn’t just jilted, she’s knocked up. The Duke of Milan is sending men to war for, as he himself sings, “who knows what to who knows where.” And Silvia, tired of being everybody’s fantasy girl, steps out of a picture frame to set the guys straight—they must love her, not the idea of her. These moments are deeply affecting and give weight to the overall frothiness of the play.

Center Stage plays up the ‘70s vibe with a Day-Glo-colored set that morphs throughout the play, and costumes that mesh petticoats with polyester shirts and bell-bottoms, rendered in colors that nature only uses sparingly. But rather than setting the play firmly in the ’70s, director Irene Lewis mixes retro with contemporary willy-nilly, throwing in laptops and cybercafés. The music itself covers a wide range of styles, too, from groovy Age of Aquarius-style tunes to Motown and calypso. It’s a hodgepodge that never quite comes together, making some numbers show-stoppers while others feel like filler.

And the same can be said for the cast. Ivan Hernandez is fairly bland as Proteus, and while Toni Trucks ably fills the shoes originally meant for Lisa Datz, she and Hernandez never match the energy and chemistry of Rodney Hicks’ charismatic Valentine and Angela Robinson’s show-stealing turn as Silvia. A few actors shine in smaller roles, like Kingsley Leggs’ funny yet imposing Duke of Milan, Kirsten Wyatt’s plucky Lucetta, and Miguel Andres Cervantes’ thoroughly entertaining Thurio. While Center Stage clearly has all the makings of a lively production on its hands, director Lewis needs to pick up the pace and get her whole cast to offer the energy that would make Two Gentlemen the raucous and irreverent party Guare intended.

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