The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s entertaining but over-the-top “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” wastes no time coming at you. PJ Paparelli’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy about double-crossing friends opens in a fast food parking lot with teenagers binge drinking; within a minute a kid tosses his cookies. Music pounds, and snarky text-message narration flashes on a screen overhead. Guns are around. Like the pulse of a 17-year-old, it’s all very racy.
If Paparelli has a signature, this is it. Several seasons ago he created an exceptionally youthful, remarkably raw “Romeo and Juliet,” and his “columbinus” was an arresting and incisive depiction of the 1999 high school shootings in Colorado. Both shows were first-rate dramatic studies of kids on the edge.
You can see why Paparelli would return to this territory — though not why he pushes it to such unexpectedly grim heights — for the infrequently staged “Two Gents.” The play is about young lovers and whiplash impulses: Valentine teases his pal Proteus for mooning over a lass named Julia, but everything changes when the boys hit the big town of Milan. Both guys fall for the Duke’s elegant daughter Silvia, with the changeable Proteus proving especially willing to forget fair Julia and backstab his buddy.
Yes, it’s a comedy: the play has two clowns and a dog, and the lovers and friends spend a lot of time swapping witty repartee. But the emotional switchbacks are sharp, and the play’s sudden ending threatens real violence. The climax of this play, arguably Shakespeare’s earliest, is notoriously impossible.
Paparelli’s solution is to plunge us into the hothouse emotions of adolescence, and for much of the show he makes it a real ride. Walt Spangler’s metallic set juts out into the Lansburgh Theatre, with catwalks crisscrossing the stage and giant commercial logos (Apple, McDonald’s, many more) casting a Times Square glow while promoting an aura of instant gratification. The characters tease each other on smartphones and croon sappy love songs in a karaoke bar; except for Paul Spadone’s peculiarly stiff Elizabethan/modern mashup costumes, it’s all very familiar and energetic.
It’s well-acted, too, which comes as a relief. (The show is so action-packed you worry sometimes about its ability to calm down and talk.) Especially winning are the clowns, played by the admirably relaxed Adam Green and Euan Morton. Green is droll and drily amused as Speed, Valentine’s servant-with-a-skateboard, and Morton beams as Launce, the loopy fool who mopes over the seeming indifference of his dog Crab (tranquilly played by a shaggy, cock-eared pooch named Oliver).
It takes a while for the lovers to really pop out, but eventually Andrew Veenstra makes an appealing Valentine, while Nick Dillenburg shows glimpses of the Iago he may someday be in his smoothly self-serving Proteus. Natalie Mitchell has a fine imperial presence as Silvia and Miriam Silverman’s plucky, pouty Julia brings welcome passion to the finish.
If the show doesn’t quite click, it’s largely because of its cineplex-style use of U2 tunes and firearms. Music is oxygen in this milieu, of course, but some of the songs Paparelli and his composer and sound designer Fabian Obispo use are so painfully on the nose as to be eye-rolling. There are “Glee”-spirited moments that will make you laugh, but that’s offset by the sense of applying an easy pop patch where the characters or story seem reluctant to fly.
But the big test of how you feel about this lively “Two Gents” is how you respond to its violence. Some of the chase scenes and scuffles on those catwalks are fabulous, but this weaponized show repeatedly pushes its kids to extreme moments of despair and self-damage with razors and pistols, making this play surprisingly darker and more disturbing than “Romeo and Juliet.”
In his last plays, Shakespeare used magic and an expansive spirit to make us accept crazy tales. For the rougher “Two Gents,” Paparelli gets it done at gunpoint.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by PJ Paparelli. Lights, Howell Binkley; music director/vocal arranger, Jon Kalbfleisch; choreographer, Michael J. Bobbitt; fight director, Paul Dennhardt. With Christopher McHale, Stephen Patrick Martin, Inga Ballard, Brent Harris, Gene Gillette, Todd Scofield, David Duffield, Chris Genebach, Jacob Perkins, Aayush Chandan, Jonathan W. Colby, Michael Gregory, Aaryn Kopp, Matthew McGee, Janel Miley, and Jade Wheeler. About 21 / 2 hours. Through March 4 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit ShakespeareTheatre.org.