Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday Night in Waterside Plaza: Curious Frog Theatre Company presents "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the Plaza

We've just come back from seeing another entertaining Shakespeare production by the excellent Curious Frog Theatre Company: their sparkling, sexy, slimmed-down 1980s version of Two Gentlemen of Verona,

played outdoors tonight at the Waterside Plaza apartment complex overlooking the East River.

This was the fifth time we'd seen the Curious Frog troupe, but we'd never been to Waterside Plaza before, despite working for years just a few blocks away. Their outdoor plaza, open to the public, isn't an ideal setting although it has a raised stage; the cast had to compete with noisy generators and helicopters taking off.

Yet the actors still managed to convey the truly curious mixture of light-as-air comedy and bizarre betrayals that make up what is generally thought to be Shakespeare's first dramatic effort and one of his lesser comedies. Their line readings were generally fine (even when the nimble puns are nearly incomprehensible to the average contemporary theatergoer), and some of the physical comedy was among the best we've seen in outdoor Shakespeare.

A particular standout in the small cast of eight (Two Gentlemen has the fewest characters of any Shakespeare play, and you can tell it's a fledgling effort by the way he can't deftly handle dialogue between any more than three characters at a time) was a zany Krystine Summers in the comedy's most crowd-pleasing role as the servant Launce, who with his flea-bitten dog Crab (played here by a lovably worn orangey stuffed animal), made us laugh more than anyone did this entire summer.

She was indeed funnier than the only other Launce we've seen: the great actor Dylan Baker, playing against type in the Central Park New York Shakespeare Festival 1987 production. (Hey, that was actually in the 1980s.) Two Gentlemen of Verona can be very funny, as here, and it also prefigures some of the themes of love and loyalty that Shakespeare will develop in a more mature way in his later comedies (and his Verona-set play, Romeo and Juliet).

The story is relatively simple: Proteus and Valentine are two gentlemen of Verona. Proteus initially loves Julia and Valentine falls in love with Sylvia. But then Proteus falls for Sylvia too. All repair to a forest, where Julia is disguised as a boy. And as in other Shakespeare comedies, love finds its way in a remote setting when a heroine disguises herself a male. But Proteus's betrayal of his BFF Valentine and his beloved Julia just upon seeing the lovely Sylvia always seems highly problematic.

Here all is played with extremely fluffy comedy: when Proteus (played with eye-popping unstable energy by Emilio Aquino, whose innate decency somehow manages to transcend the character's uglier side) first sets eyes on Julia, the action goes into slo-mo as heart-stopping music blares. That makes it easier to try not to think about the implications of his treachery and selfishness, and Valentine's end-of-play turn-on-a-dime forgiveness of his buddy, whom he's just seen attempting to sexually assault his girlfriend.

Apart from Krystine Summers and Emilio Aquino, we saw top-notch work from all the actors in this production, directed by ReneƩ Rodriguez (who also directed the Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night's Dream: the Scavengers we liked so much in the past two summers; she also played Cassius in the company's Julius Caesar we saw a week ago in Fort Greene Park).

In the other comic servant role, Robert J. Dyckman (who directed Julius Caesar) has leahter-jacketed wise-guy aplomb as Speed; he seems more Corona than Verona, and it works.

Angela Sharp, whom we thought excellent as Calpurnia a week ago, here portrays Julia as a ditzy but resourceful riot grrrl, matched in effervescence by her confidante/maid Lucetta (Umi Shakti), who's constantly egging her on. Julia's scenes with Proteus give off both light and heat as early on, they pretty much can't keep their hands off one another.

As the play's nominal hero, the noble Valentine, Justin Maruri matched the exuberance of his friend and rival Proteus, but also exuded sweetness and earnestness in his both his heterosexual passion and his commitment to the bromance with the other gentleman of Verona.

James Ware, authoritative last week as Julius Caesar, brought some gravitas to the play's most mature (in every sense) characters, Proteus's father, the decisive but casual Antonio, and Sylvia's father, the stuffy, formal but clever Duke of Milan.

And as the golden uptown girl of Milan, Bushra Laskar was alternatively ardent, flighty, and petulant -- she makes Sylvia worth fighting for even if the song "Who is Sylvia?" doesn't quite have a definitive answer.

The cast wore variously funky, comfy and stylish Eighties fashions thanks to the costume design by Samantha Guinan, and the dialogue was nicely highlighted by the background music featuring a blaring playlist of some of the decade's better songs.

The action romped back and forth a couple of times from the stage on the north side of the plaza to a strip of grass on the south side, representing the forest to where Valentine is exiled and joins the outlaws (played by Dyckman, Shakti, and Summers) following a highly stylized and comic fight scene (directed by Rocio Alexis Mendez).

This back-and-forth entailed moving the audience, mostly Waterside residents with lots of older folks as well as little kids (some scooted around during the performance), and while we didn't mind one bit, a few people obviously had trouble literally following the action.

We would have preferred to see this production in daylight (the company will be doing Julius Caesar here at 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 10), and there were some problems catching the lines due to sporadic noise, but night lent the convoluted hijinks touches of whimsy and insouciance, as befits this lightweight, frothy comedy, fittingly set in a lightweight, frothy decade.

We're grateful for Curious Frog Theatre Company's presenting Two Gentlemen this summer in such a festive, colorful package.

No comments: