"The Two Gentlemen of Verona," into which the Round House Theatre is currently struggling to breathe some life, is one of Shakespeare's lesser efforts -- awkwardly plotted, skimpily developed and unsurprisingly resolved.
I'm not sure why the Round House would pick it to end what has been, in many respects, a turnaround season for the company. But I have a suspicion: You can take liberties with it, dress it up in outlandish costumes and strew its scenes with anachronisms without necessarily opening yourself up to charges of manhandling.
What's to manhandle? A dullish story about a swain named Proteus, who forsakes the adoring Julia to run off to Milan, where he woos Sylvia, the lady fair of his bosom buddy, Valentine. Sylvia rejects his advances, Julia dresses up like a page to reclaim him, Valentine joins a group of highwaymen and everything gets tidily sorted out in the woods. That's about it. The wit and lyricism that flowered in Shakespeare's later romantic comedies is notably absent.
"Two Gents" seemingly demands to be monkeyed with, and that's a temptation few directors can resist. In a staging reminiscent of the musical version that played on Broadway in 1971, director Jerry Whiddon goes the route of pop, if not snap and crackle. The Duke (Mark Jaster) strides about the stage like Groucho, rolling his eyes and chomping on a cigar. Lovesick Julia (Joanne Schmoll) flings herself on the floor, while her maid (Jennifer Mendenhall) chews gum and files her nails with an emery board. Launce, the clown (Daniel De Raey), is dressed for "Waiting for Godot"; his dog Crab seems to have wandered in from "Down and Out in Beverly Hills." Actors in sunglasses and sneakers, along with bits of Elizabethan garb, clamber all over the multilevel set, which suggests scaffolding on a ship. Behind a scrim, a saxophone wails.
The tactics, however, don't amplify a weak play; they merely detract from it. What you get is a kind of blanket liveliness that no more solves the real problems in the script than a coat of whitewash shores up a crumbling wall. The text is not being confronted; it's being sidestepped.
The performances range from the insufferable (Nick Olcott, falling back on his repertoire of stock mannerisms as the foppish Thurio; and Steven LeBlanc, braying uncontrollably as the clown, Speed) to the acceptable (Bill Whitaker, as Proteus; Schmoll, as Julia, until she is obliged to disguise herself in what looks like camouflage for a Sherman tank).
Whiddon keeps up a running barrage of business -- LeBlanc even cleans his toes in the course of one speech. But it amounts to just so much activity piled on top of the play in the shallow hope that a bustling surface will keep us from peeking underneath.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jerry Whiddon. Set, Richard H. Young; costumes, Rosemary Pardee-Holz; lighting, Jane Williams Flank; music, Chris Patton. With Mark Jaster, Daniel Yates, Bill Whitaker, Nick Olcott, Steven LeBlanc, Daniel De Raey, Joanne Schmoll, Kathy Yarman, Jennifer Mendenhall. At the Round House through June 1.