Contemporary adaptations of classical plays can be perilous endeavors, suffering from stilted prose and contrived action, but The Two Gentlemen of Verona, mounted by New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, succeeds with aplomb. The sole anachronisms — not easily substituted — are amorous, handwritten letters secretly delivered back and forth. Text messages simply would not do.
This lighthearted romantic comedy, one of Shakespeare's earliest works, probably written while the playwright was in his twenties, speaks to the inexplicable power of youthful infatuation. In this production, the actors' smart, quick-paced repartee captivates the audience as the plot intertwines two love triangles, threatening a lifelong friendship.
Jessica Podewell's keen direction allows every actor to shine. Ensemble members play off one another's lines with passionate delivery and spirited animation that illuminate the meaning of Shakespeare's dense dialogue. Lyrical accordion music accompanies scene changes, and inventive costuming and props allude to contemporary Italian cafe society.
Two Gentlemen of Verona is a story of two close friends who choose divergent paths —love and adventure. In the opening scene, Proteus (Kyle Woods) and Valentine (Levi Hood) convey their easy, longstanding camaraderie, bantering and sharing confidences on a set that might be a dormitory.
Proteus is smitten by the charming Julia (Devyn Tyler), who has "metamorphosed" him. He believes pursuing true love is of utmost importance, while Valentine belittles romance, seeking worldly experiences befitting his noble birth.
"Love is your master, for he masters you; And he that is so yoked by a fool methinks should not be chronicled for wise," Valentine chides.
When the servant Speed delivers Proteus' secret missive to Julia, she feigns disinterest, tearing his letter into pieces even though she secretly admires him. Girlish prattle between Julia and her maid Lucetta (Mary Guiteras) weighs the merits of one suitor over another. Julia finally responds to Proteus' advances and, following a romantic encounter, he reluctantly sets off to join Valentine.
In Milan, Valentine and Proteus meet the alluring Silvia (Julia DeLois), daughter of the Duke of Milan (Silas Cooper), and the men's romantic competition ensues.
Having now discovered love himself, Valentine renounces his freedom, declaring, "Love is a mighty lord."
Speed counsels his master: "If you love her, you cannot see her. Because love is blind."
The story pits loyalty to friendship against the impulsive nature of love.
Other cast members adding comic diversions include Silvia's boorish suitor Sir Thurio (Graham Burk), clad in preppy attire, Proteus' servant Launce (Brendan Bowen) in gondolier ensemble and accompanied by his pokerfaced Dachshund Crab, who never misses a cue.
Unlike many of Shakespeare's later plays, Two Gentlemen of Verona is pure fun, exploring the vagaries of human behavior and the intoxicating springtime of love. — MARY RICKARD