The distribution of plays among Stratford’s four theatres is pretty straightforward, and this season is fairly typical. The Festival Stage gets four or five “meatball” plays: a couple of Shakespeares, generally either more popular plays or, if less popular, presented in a manner designed to appeal to a somewhat wider audience; one or two other classics of similarly wide appeal; and one musical. The Avon Theatre gets two or three long-run shows, at least one being appropriate for kids, at least one being a musical. The Patterson Theatre gets three or four shows that are more challenging or designed for more mature audiences, but that require some scope to work – not works that belong in a small space. And the Studio Theatre gets the one-man or one-woman shows, the little-produced classics, the new Canadian plays, and some more experimental fare.
Until this year, Shakespeare, the heart and soul of the Festival, has never been on the Studio’s program. This year that changed, with The Two Gentlemen of Verona directed by Assistant Artistic Director Dean Gabourie. Of course, Two Gents isn’t King Lear – although by Shakespeare, it itself is a little-produced classic, generally considered Shakespeare’s worst play and often assumed to be his first (unless the lost “ur-Hamlet” was also by Shakespeare himself). The last time Stratford offered the play was in 1998, before the opening of the Studio Theatre, in a crowd-pleasing production on the Festival Stage set among turn-of-the-(last)-century hockey players (who performed on roller skates). It’s a good choice for the Studio’s first foray into Shakespeare, because you can do with it what you like without fear of offense against the sensibilities of bardolators – indeed, you’ve got to do something with this play, because on its face it’s ludicrous, or at least it has a ludicrous ending.
The “big concept” for this year’s Two Gents was quite promising: since the plot can’t really be taken seriously, and since the play is a kind of buddy movie, do it as a vaudeville. Make Valentine and Proteus into Bob and Bing and we’ll all know where we are, and we’ll have a great time on the road trip.
Like I said: it’s a promising route into the play. But in execution, the production runs into a problem: the language gets in the way. There are individual bits – particularly with the two clowns, Speed and Launce – that sound an awful lot like comedy bits inserted between numbers; these work extremely well with the vaudeville conceit. But the serious and, particularly, the introspective bits don’t play that way. It’s not the substance of these moments that’s a problem – Proteus’s musing on how he can’t be true to his friend without being false to himself, and so he must be false to be true, and would be false if he were true – well, it’s a sentiment worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan (and, indeed, Proteus’s lineal descendant is Dick Dauntless of the G&S operetta, Ruddygore). But if Shakespeare was writing a satire, he was doing it very deadpan. It sure sounds like he intends us to be fully with the characters in these moments of introspection, and that pulls the actors to perform these scenes with an earnestness that jars with the vaudeville theme.
And so the result is a production with a marked inconsistency in tone and a persistent confusion about what, precisely, is the reality we’re in. Is the whole play a vaudeville? Or are the four lovers all vaudeville players, and only individual bits actually on stage, while other bits are backstage? Are the characters themselves aware that they are, in fact, onstage at the Studio Theatre even when we’re seeing “backstage” scenes? Is the plot a ridiculous melodrama or something we’re supposed to take seriously? We’re never sure. John Vickery does a deliciously ripe turn as the “Duke” of the vaudeville circuit, and Stephen Russell is charming playing Sir Eglamour as an aging Erroll Flynn type, but Sophia Walker appears to be playing her part entirely straight, and Claire Lautier’s Sylvia (played as a star of the silent screen) moves in and out of mode as a given scene requires, playing her scene with Ms. Walker (when Ms. Walker is in disguise as the page, Sebastian) as if she were in a totally straight production, while playing her scenes with Mr. Russell as campy melodrama. In each case, the reading makes sense, but we are left ever more confused about how to actually take this play.
In terms of the reality of the play, I suspect what was intended was something along the lines of: Valentine and Proteus are vaudeville players, as are Sylvia and Julia, but over the course of the play their offstage lives get progressively infected with the tropes and themes of vaudeville and melodrama. But there isn’t any clear progression, and besides, we don’t know what this infection is intended to mean – what the audience is supposed to come to understand about love, or friendship, or theatricality, or anything.
And then there’s the climax, the impossible scene where Valentine confronts Proteus as the latter attempts the rape of Sylvia, the girl they both adore. Proteus apologizes; Valentine says, well, if you repent then I forgive you – in fact, I can’t deny a friend anything, so why don’t you take Sylvia; Julia, still disguised as Sebastian, faints; Proteus revives her, discovers who she is, and suddenly loves her again; the Duke forgives Valentine for his capture by the band of outlaws, and gives Sylvia to him; and all live happily ever after. How on earth is this sequence to be played? If any sequence in the whole play should have been done as some kind of parody of a Shakespearean comedy, this would be it. But Dion Johnstone has been playing Valentine very well but absolutely straight all through – even when he becomes the improbable king of the outlaws (dressed like Vladimir and Estragon but played like the Keystone Kops). So Valentine looks at Sylvia, who nods assent, and he magnanimously forgives and offers her to his friend. And the scene just dies. Only minutes earlier, Sylvia and Sir Eglamour are being chased through a sandbag-and-rope forest to flickering lights and the tinkling of pianos, by bandits who bang into each other and fall down in heaps on cue, and now we’re supposed to be taking this ludicrous ending seriously?
The show is still fun. Bruce Dow and Robert Persichini do fine work as Speed and Launce, the two clowns, Dow the quick-witted and exasperated one and Persichini the slower and sadder (though I was puzzled that one of their dialogues was replaced by a monologue for Persichini lifted from A Comedy Of Errors). They even manage to hold their own when they share the stage with Launce’s dog, Crab, played by Persichini’s real-life dog, Otto, who inevitably steals most of the audience’s attention. Gareth Potter gives Proteus a surprising degree of interiority, which would be fascinating if it weren’t undercut so often by the vaudeville concept, and Claire Lautier manifests real glamor as Sylvia. But other bits – particularly the outlaws – fall flat, and the abrupt shifts in tone eventually get to be too much.