For a Shakespearean play, "Two Gentlemen of Verona" sure is long on weak puns and short on character development. The plot is that double-crossing your sweetheart and best friend is all right as long as you say you're sorry.
Here's a sample of the wit: "And how quote you my folly?" "I quote it in your jerkin." "My jerkin is a doublet." "Well, then, I'll double your folly."
That couldn't have been too much of a yuk-yuk even in its heyday, and fortunately the author went on to better things. So it takes a strong troupe of comedians to bring off "Two Gentlemen of Verona." The Folger Theater Group is doing it splendidly now, providing a jolly evening for those interested in the less frequently performed Shakespear - "Hamlets" are going to be breaking out all over the city this winter like "Nutcrackers" - and who want to hear the great quotes in context. (This is the play that gave us" to make a virtue of necessity" and "They do not love that do not show their love," even if the next line contradicts it.)
The greatest delights of this production are Mikel Lambert as Julia and David Cromwell as Speed. As an ever-loving, ever-wronged little sub-heroine, Julia could be insufferable; but Lambert comes on like a stuffed satin valentine, with a comic zest to enrich the happy moments and the bearing to make her tolerance and pathos moving. Speed is the thinner of the two comic servant parts, but Cromwell's earnest approach, rather like a taxi driver dispensing wisdom to his inferiors, is very funny.
The others also invite post-Elizabethan comparisons - Allan Carlsen doing the treacherous Proteus like Nureyev dazed by fleeing sylphides: all cheekbones and intense care; and Michael Tolaydo doing the hero Valentine as Ryan O'Neill in "Love Story." And, of course, the dog Crab, played by a dog who gets the chief applause of the evening for yawning and wagging his tail.
But by making their various contributions of living comedy, the actors have brought to life a play that made it to immortality in print, but not in production.