With the capable guidance of director Kenneth Albers, a longtime presence at American Players Theatre, University Theatre tackles Shakespeare's early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The play can be vexing in that Shakespeare employs so many elements (two sets of lovers, disguise, banishment, the transformative effects of love), something he does to better effect in later works. But Two Gentlemen, which opened Friday at Mitchell Theatre in Vilas Hall, is not without its charms.
The story: Best friends Valentine (likeable Joe Lullo) and Proteus (Santiago Sosa, somehow endearing as this cad ) say farewell as Valentine leaves Verona for Milan. Smitten with Julia (feisty Liz Cassarino), Proteus stays behind. In Milan, Valentine is besotted by lovely Silvia (Kristin Hammargren). Proteus goes to Milan, where he falls under Silvia's spell and schemes to push Valentine out of the way. Silvia is appalled that Proteus has forsaken Julia, who, meanwhile, travels to Milan, dressed as a man for safety. Julia learns of Proteus' betrayal, and wackiness in the woods ensues.
The play is about the foibles of youth, and the cast members appropriately embody youth and promise. Albers gets good work from them. Alanna Reeves is a standout in the gender-bending role of the witty, energetic servant Speed. Her program bio reveals that this is her first foray into Shakespeare, but she seems at ease with the language and makes for lively pairings with other actors, particularly Lullo. I believed the friendship between Lullo and Sosa's characters, which is underscored by their chest slapping embrace.
In some scenes you see the promise of Shakespeare's instincts for comedy, especially the one in which Proteus lays out his plot - Sosa's elastic facial expressions make his duplicity seem understandable. Still, the play is flawed, and the second act feels a bit slapdash.
Albers also gets good work from his production team. His program notes allude to the innocence of his small-town youth in the 1950s, and costume designer Sarah Woodworth evokes the era with designs that straddle the centuries; think of bikers and greasers from the The Wild One, or letter jackets and prim sweater sets -punctuated with knickers and Elizabethan collars. It's interesting, fresh work, but I sometimes found it confusing. Woodworth's work for Silvia shines. A stiffly ruffled yellow dress is a stunner, as is the organza lounge wear.
Katy Lai's set is handsome and practical, giving the actors many levels to work on. I also compliment Sarah Pickett's sound design, which imbues the production with just the right amount of scene-setting music, and Jono de Leon's lighting, which creates the feeling of sun-dappled Italy.