A pre-show downpour at American Players Theatre's outdoor theater in Spring Green didn't delay the opening of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (through Oct. 6). Ushers passed out paper towels along with programs, and everybody went about their business. The play, one of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, can be a bit dreary and ponderous, but it has bright spots as well. We see hints of the Bard's hallmark tropes and themes, including a female character disguising herself as a boy, the bizarre foibles of young lovers, the rocky terrain of friendships and a hasty resolution in the woods.
Proteus (Marcus Truschinski) and Valentine (Travis A. Knight) are close friends who must part ways when Valentine leaves Verona for Milan. He is unable to convince Proteus to accompany him because Proteus is gaga over Julia (Susan Shunk). But Proteus' father insists that he too go to Milan, so the devastated couple exchange rings and pledge their eternal love. Meanwhile, Valentine has fallen for Silvia (Abbey Siegworth), the duke's daughter, in Milan. When Proteus arrives, he's instantly besotted with Silvia, forsaking both Julia and Valentine. Proteus ingratiates himself to the duke (James Pickering) and conspires to have Valentine banished to the woods, where he becomes the leader of a band of outlaws.
Julia, disguising herself as a page, travels to Milan, where she sees firsthand that Proteus is in love with Silvia, who in turn wants nothing to do with him. She proves to be a gracious and loyal lady who risks her safety to track down Valentine. Proteus doesn't detect that his new servant is actually his former love, and all of the couples wind up in the woods, where the things that have come apart are made right.
But the "making right" part of this play creeps me out. Proteus, who initially seems like a just a benign narcissist in the throes of love, turns out to be a malicious cad who puts his best friend in peril, threatens to rape Silvia and is too easily forgiven by those who have been harmed by him. Most troubling is Valentine's quick absolution and subsequent offering up of Silvia to Proteus. I realize my quibbles have more to do with the play than the APT production of it. As always, the company's design is smart, and the cast is topnotch.
It's nice to see Knight come into his own as Valentine, making us believe that he is an honorable man who is true to his love and his dear friend. Truschinski plays Proteus with a smarmy charm that helps you understand why Valentine might put up with his nonsense. Shunk makes Julia radiate a plucky steadfastness and is particularly delightful in a scene where she pieces together a love note she hastily tore apart when feigning disinterest. As Silvia, Siegworth is no shallow beauty. We see her kindness and honor. Ricco Fajardo has some funny moments as the handsome but priggish suitor Thurio.
The most levity comes from three very saucy servants. Kelsey Brennan as the quick-witted Lucetta has amusing scenes with Shunk. Tart-tongued Speed (Will Mobley) supplies sardonic commentary as Valentine attempts to woe Silvia. The play's most hilarious duo is the laugh-out-loud Launce (Steve Haggard) and his dog, Crab. They are such scene stealers that if this play were a TV series and I were a network executive, I would give them their own spinoff immediately. Nimble and droll, Haggard at times interacts with the audience, underscoring his more ribald remarks with a knowing wink. His pros-and-cons list about the milkmaid he desires is priceless.
Here's hoping that APT audiences enjoy a season that is light on rain.