A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The second offering of the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regent’s Park is a delightful rendering of Shakespeare’s early comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”  Director Rachel Kavanaugh sets the play in the late eighteenth century Regency period and brings a light touch overall to the giddy goings on, which concern two couples in love and their adventures once forcibly parted. Friendship vs. love is a theme that will turn up again in “The Merchant of Venice,” and elements of the plot like the woman disguised as a man will appear in “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It,” along with the clever servant.

While the four lovers themselves are fairly stereotypical, like the pair in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (in repertory at the Open Air Theatre), the most interestingly drawn is the inconstant Proteus, named for the shape-changing sea god, well played by Nick Fletcher.  Once he sees Sylvia (Issy van Randwyck), his fidelity vanishes, both to his love Julia (Phillipa Peak) and to his friend Valentine (Nicholas Burns). Manipulative and plotting, he bustles about, almost like an embryo Richard III (suitably booed by the audience) betraying Valentine and arranging his banishment, replacing him in wooing Sylvia, and nearly raping her when she spurns him.

Ms. Kavanaugh’s direction maintains throughout the soufflé plot; avoiding any heavy-handed touch that would deflate it.  What to do with the band of outlaws banished Valentine joins?  Turn him into a swashbuckler defending himself in a fast-moving, expert dueling scene in which he defeats some five or six outlaws, themselves an inept band out of The Pirates of Penzance.  (One even stabs himself by mistake in this scene). Place the characters in Paul Farnsworth’s appealing, romantic costumes of the period, the men in ankle-length, side pleated coats and boots, the women like china shepherdesses. The handsome men’s attire helps Julia’s disguise, and a nice touch is that her costume echoes Proteus’s cream-colored one.

 Add many inventive touches that support the text but never overwhelm it, like Julia’s letter-tearing scene early in the play.  To impress her down-to-earth maidservant Lucetta (Victoria Woodward), she has torn up Proteus’s love letter, but once alone, addressing the words in pieces, she chastises herself as “unkind,” kicking away and stamping on his words “kind Julia.”

And very important: cast two experts as the men’s servants, Speed (John Hodgkinson) and Launce (Ian Talbot), who carry the comedy.  The former is the witty servant, describing the way a traditional lover looks – sighing and fasting and lonely and disheveled – a reference that Rosalind uses in “As You Like It” to disparage Orlando – that is seen in Hamlet as well.  Launce is the slower witted, and his catalog of virtues of his beloved parallels the men’s flowery outbursts of love to their ladies.

Most important: Have a good dog play the role of Launce’s companion, Crabbe.  Ms. Kavanaugh’s own dog Josie shines in this part, as well trained as the other actors.  She sits on cue, looks at the speakers in turn, accepts Launce’s chiding meekly, and wears her ribbon jauntily when she becomes a substitute gift to Sylvia.

This is as fine a production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” as you will ever hope to see, and it provides a thoroughly enjoyable evening or afternoon out among the trees and flowers of Regent’s Park at their most beautiful.