Two pairs of lovers. One confused man falls in love with a girl sworn to his best friend, forgetting his first lover and swearing allegiance to his new idol. Hormone-crazed youngsters chase each other around, winding up in a moonlit forest.
“Two Gentlemen of Verona,” currently playing at the Folger Theatre, sounds sneakily familiar – “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” anyone? But “Two Gents” actually came earlier (circa 1595). It’s considered Shakespeare’s first romantic comedy. With this delightful production, director Aaron Posner reminds audiences why we still perform Shakespeare’s work, now over 400 years old.
Although Posner makes few changes, his text feels accessible to a modern audience. He alters the bizarre original ending and adds a fantastic soundtrack featuring Natalie Cole, Peggy Lee and Marvin. His talented, seven-member cast includes a ferocious Ian Merrill Peakes (Proteus) and his twittering, high-energy wife Karen Peakes as lover Julia. The bright-eyed Brian Hamman plays Valentine, who first scoffed at Proteus’s love but has now fallen for Sylvia, the slinky Heidi Armbruster. The actors continually engage the audience by dashing in and out of scenes via the center aisle and delivering alternately heartbreaking and devastatingly funny monologues.
Clearly, Posner placed a heavy emphasis working with the individual, and these intimate moments of monologues showcase a thrilling range of talent. Besides the lovers, there are a dozen other characters, all played by the outstanding trio of Kate Eastwood Norris, Lucy Newman-Williams and Holly Twyford. The three women all dress in drag, but Newman-Williams is the most convincing, filling her throat with a rich gravely tone to play the Duke, Sylvia’s father. Particularly amusing scenes include Twyford as a sad-eyed pup with a penchant for collapsing on the floor and Norris as the smarmy Thurio wooing Sylvia with a foot-stomping rendition of “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.”
This Doris Day classic accurately sums up the costumes (Dan Conway) of the lovers with tight pink sweaters, bobbed blonde hair and well-cut trousers. This straddling of centuries continues with the set (Dan Covey), which combines sweeping modern arches, two staircases and a walkway in shades of maroon. The set merges agreeably with the intimate 250-seat theatre, a replica of the inn yard theatres popular in Shakespeare’s time. Walking into the space for the first time, I was immediately reminded of the Globe Theatre in London, where I had first understood the true draw and genius of Shakespeare.
Audiences may very well leave “Two Gents” feeling the same way. Posner called it a “funny, tricky, challenging and ultimately very rewarding play.” His production modernizes the context of this difficult story while remaining true to the language. Shakespeare continues to live in U.S. popular culture, his work as relevant and touching as it was hundreds of years ago.
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” runs now until Dec. 19 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Student and rush ticket discounts apply. Rush Tickets are 20 to 25 percent off. Call (202) 544-7077 for more information.