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’Gentlemen’ crosses a fresher line
THEATER REVIEW

July 04, 2007|Philip Brandes, Special to The Times

By now well-established as a summer mainstay for discriminating fans of outdoor theater, the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival opens its 11th year on the grounds of Cal Lutheran University by revisiting "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," a popular hit from the company's second season.

The choice of one of the Bard's seldom-performed "problem plays" was a gutsy one in 1998 and remains so today -- and that makes this charming, accessible production all the more impressive.

In tackling Shakespeare's earliest comedy, Michael Arndt's previous staging used abundant slapstick and an early-1900s resetting to overcome the limitations of a sprawling plot and archaic sensibilities. This time around, co-directors Marc Silver and Derek Medina (both veterans of Arndt's original cast) retain many of those successful adaptive elements but also parlay a more polished and mature ensemble into greater emphasis on clearly defined characters and relationships.

As the nominal heroes whose friendship is tested by their love for the same woman (classy, assured Meaghan Boeing), Nathan Patrick's Proteus and Daniel Billet's Valentine both mine satisfying depth from their callow, lovesick characters. In particular, the guilty self-awareness Patrick displays over Proteus' betrayal of his best friend and abandoned lover, Julia (JJ Rodgers), makes him unexpectedly sympathetic; rather than a heartless cad, he's a headstrong youth in the grip of infatuation he can't control. One more adventurous staging flourish -- a tango set to Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" -- manages (despite mundane choreography) to drive home the play's darker subtext.

For the most part, though, this remains a breezy romp in the park. The work's generally acknowledged crowd-pleaser is Proteus' earthy clown-servant, Launce (Travis Brazil), and his bits with his canine companion (an uncredited, well-trained greyhound), but he gets a run for his money from Kent Klineman as Valentine's butler, Speed. At one point, the pair team for a discourse on the attributes of their ideal woman, delivered in a homage to Groucho Marx's classroom lecture in "Horsefeathers" (complete with flying spitballs).

The most compelling performance, however, comes from festival regular Rodgers, who has blossomed into a gifted Shakespearean comedian. With whimsy, passion and heartfelt pain, her conflicted Julia deftly navigates the tropes of a gender-switching disguise in which she must woo a rival on behalf of her beloved.

The results make for an entertaining Shakespearean foray for casual acquaintances, while those better steeped in the canon will find many of the playwright's signature comic devices take on new freshness in a less familiar context.