It’s August and a Friday, which means a new summer blockbuster is being released… but honestly in all the business of the week, I haven’t a clue as to what’s opening…but that doesn’t matter. I’m here to talk about what does: Independent Shakespeare Company’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, running through September 3 in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park…for FREE.
I could make all kinds of qualifiers: I like these guys. I’m riding high over the trip to the Wooden O Symposium. This is a play I’ve never seen, so any opportunity is going to be welcome. It’s just been a good week, so I’m in a great mood. But the bottom line is: this production is simply fantastic.
Those of you who’ve been around since the beginning of this blog must be thinking: say what? Yes, I know… of the plays I’ve read thus far, this has been MY LEAST favorite (even nudging out King John). I don’t know. Maybe it’s the truly distasteful machinations of Proteus. Maybe it’s what seemed like–on the page, at least–some really lame jokes. Or maybe it was THAT ENDING. Regardless, I was not a fan of that reading experience.
But now, I may have to revisit that play on the page because on stage, it rocked.
It’s set in a 50’s rockabilly world of youthful rebellion. Director David Melville cements this concept by having a live rock ensemble on-stage to punctuate the action with great songs and lively music. This alone, however, can’t overcome my resistance to the play. I mean, Proteus is still pretty much a douchebag; Evan Lewis Smith’s performance, however, is wonderfully comic–struggling, then not struggling, then struggling some more with the reasons to and not to abandon his love, Julia. Now, I did like reading the Launce (he’s the one with the dog) scenes…solo, they were funny comic monologues; but the duo and trio comic bits? On the page, they felt lame, almost forced. Here, Melville employs the band–or at least the drummer–to great effect: yes, the jokes are weak, he knows it, we know it…the drummer knows it, and we get rim-shots…that the characters hear. So if we didn’t laugh at the jokes (some of which were delivered with more comic punch than I had heard in my head while reading), we may have laughed at the rim-shot, and if we didn’t laugh at that, we laughed at their reactions.
And about that ending. For those who’ve read the play, you know what I’m talking about; if you don’t, well–SPOILERS (can a 400+ year-old play have spoilers?)–suffice to say, there’s an attempted rape, the giving away of that victim by her beau to the would-be rapist, who refuses and is then forgiven. How the hell do you play that in 2017? In a comedy? That up until now has been pretty light and frothy? With physical comedy, some great double-takes and slow burns…and a perfectly (non-Shakespearean) song. Damned if it didn’t work.
Beyond Smith’s work, the performances were all-around great. Melville’s Launce is perfectly clownish (and having him go back and forth between the guitar in the band to his character on stage is fun to watch, as is William Elsman’s back and forth between drumming for the band and playing the Duke). The buffoonish Thurio and the DOG’s role are both played, hilariously by Lorenzo Gonzalez, who is quickly becoming a reason to see these productions. But a special statement has to be made about Erika Soto (who is already a reason to see IndyShakes’ work): her Julia, the abandoned love interest, is wonderfully relatable–especially as she needs to act with/against inanimate objects at three times during the play, objects she wants to destroy, but she wants to have as well…this could get old, but she makes each one fresh. And for one of the few times I can remember, Soto as a boy (yes, this is one of THOSE plays) is actually believable. AND April Fritz as Julia’s servant Lucetta is a great piece of comic 50s throwback.
Like I said, music is made to great use, as are cards (carried around at times like “ring girl” cards at a boxing match) to help us know where action is taking place. I don’t want to give away a particular sight gag (and nod to another one of THOSE plays), but be ready for a funny and fantastic cover of Chuck Berry’s (well, really, Bobby Troup’s) “Route 66.” Brilliant.
So yeah. This rocks. Lisa and I are having a bit of a disagreement as to whether or not this is the best of IndyShakes’ productions we’ve seen. I say yes, but she still leans to the 60s Italianate world of their Taming a few years back. Regardless, there is no disagreement that this is one you need to see. The performances run through September 3 on Wednesday through Sunday nights at 7 in Griffith Park’s “old zoo” area…the parking and performances are free (though you really should “chuck a ducat in the bucket” to help out). NOTE: Wednesday and Thursday performances are, for me–an admittedly introverted guy who doesn’t like crowds–the way to go…the weekend performances have become so popular that you have to get there VERY early, and will have to battle crowds.
But even then it’s worth it. And we may need to see it again…