Sunday, February 21, 2016

Two Gentle(wo)men of Verona

A diverse, all-female cast gives Shakespeare a refresh

Photo courtesy of the Jungle Theatre.
This is the beginning of a new era for the Jungle. After decades under Joel Sass, Sarah Rasmussen has taken the helm, and did she ever start with a bang.

Rasmussen has set Two Gentlemen of Verona, an oft-performed Shakespeare standard, solidly in the realm of femininity. Not only is the entire cast female, but the set is cast in a dazzling ombre pink that seems odd until the contrast of architectural, stark costumes are added. The costumes are divine in this show, with everything color-coded, lots of ruffles and soft neutrals, stiff masculine jackets, and amazing medieval illustrations traced onto each character's leggings. They are simple but striking and perfectly suit the blush wash of the set.

Quick overview of the plot if you haven't seen it: two friends, Proteus and Valentine, are separated when one is assigned to work at another court. Proteus stays behind with his love Julia, until his father assigns him to join Valentine. Valentine falls in love with Sylvia at his new court. Upon seeing Sylvia, Proteus casts Julia aside and plots to win Sylvia's hand instead. Julia, heartbroken at being abandoned, follows Proteus in drag and watches him betray her. Various love triangles and shenanigans ensue.
Photo courtesy of the Jungle Theatre.
The thing that surprised me about this production, having seen it a couple times before in other venues, was just how funny it was. There were moments when the whole audience was roaring together, and it was a reminder how of thin the line is between good Shakespeare and great Shakespeare. Nothing was done to "modernize" the language of the script, but with excellent delivery and gestures, the cast is able to plant us squarely in Elizabethan vernacular. The cast is also an amazing mix of ages, races and cultures, and physical talents. It's super diverse, and I hope that casting continues to be so varied at the new Jungle.

The cast as a whole is terrific. Christiana Clark plays Proteus, and brings total commitment to every sly deed. She also manages to make Proteus straight up likeable - difficult, considering the plot, but she succeeds. Mo Perry is also winning as Valentine, and Maggie Chestovich is deliciously high strung as Julia, writhing on the stage and sneaking her way into the audience's hearts. 2015 Ivey Award Best New Actor Sha Cage plays Antonio and Thurio, and proves that no part is too small to make an impact.

Stand out cast members, however, were the oldest. It was awesome to see truly older women cast in this show; women often have a hard time finding parts once they're "past their prime" but they have so much to offer, and this production puts that on star display. My favorite performance of the entire show went to Wendy Lehr, who is flat out hilarious as Speed and Eglamour. Her sharp wit, perfectly timed delivery and keen comedic gestures absolutely make this show, and she is spectacular.

This is a really fun, fresh production (and it's not just for women, I promise). Anyone who loves Shakespeare, who hates Shakespeare because they've never seen a good production, who enjoys diverse casting, or gorgeous set pieces should check this out. For more information, click on this link.