OK, maybe I'm rationalizing. But there must be some reason why Jeff Steitzer's version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona works so well. It's set in America during the silent-film era. Verona, in this case, is "a riverfront hamlet somewhere in the Midwest," and Milan is the decadent metropolis of Hollywood. Proteus and Valentine -- the two gentlemen -- are a couple of Midwesterners in striped suits. The Duke of Milan runs a production company called Monarch Studios, and his daughter, Silvia, stars in a silent version of Antony and Cleopatra.
Shakespeare's comedy is about love and its illusions, so this production starts, appropriately, with a clip from Romeo and Juliet as seen by Proteus and Valentine in a small-town movie house. Proteus is homebound, in love with a girl named Julia, but Valentine doesn't have time for all that swooning nonsense and goes off to find his fortune in Milan. Proteus follows him there, after dumping Julia. Soon they're both in love with Milan's princess -- the elegant, platinum blonde Silvia -- who prefers Valentine and does not want to marry Thurio, her father's hand-selected suitor. Thurio in this version is her clumsy leading man, and the Duke thinks it would be good for his movie if word got around that Antony and Cleopatra were having a behind-the-scenes fling.
This parallel between 1920s Hollywood and 16th-century Milan is as brilliant as it is unlikely. No amount of scene-massaging can explain why two regular guys from a Midwestern "hamlet" have footmen, or pages, but Steitzer fudges that problem by giving Proteus' footman a few Keystone Kops routines, which have him running from a Monarch Studios security guard. Thurio's midnight serenade outside Silvia's window, in Monarch's "star housing" lot, is somehow perfect, and so are the court scenes in Milan. Here the "court" is just a sound stage of an Egyptian palace, where Silvia and Thurio struggle through endless, tedious takes of a shot from Antony. Shakespeare, of course, didn't write any of the dialogue between the director and his lead actor, but these scenes -- tarted up with Drew Boughton's magnificent set and B. Modern's shimmering costumes -- are some of the funniest in the show. Thurio makes an ass of himself by stumbling down the stairs or otherwise ruining the shot, which gives Silvia plenty of time to flirt with Valentine, a young man in the director's coterie working as a humble assistant.
Steitzer has directed with the idea that Shakespeare should be as comprehensible to a modern audience as Mamet -- which is absolutely right -- so the whole cast rings like a bell. Andrew Heffernan as Valentine and T. Edward Webster as Proteus both give clear, solid performances. Andy Murray is especially strong as Speed, Valentine's page, and John Altieri almost steals the show as a mincing, bumpkinish Launce the clown, Proteus' man. (The reason he doesn't steal the show is Crab, the dog, played by a mutt named Charley, who proves that the best Shakespearean acting is also the most natural.)
Benjamin Stewart is also excellent as the Duke of Milan -- suave, humorous, worldly. Remi Sandri plays a cocky Thurio without being smarmy himself, and Jennifer Lee Taylor is a smart-mouthed, statuesque Silvia. Amanda Duarte has a rocky start as Julia but improves when her character goes undercover, as a boy in Milan, to spy on Proteus.
The play does get overly cute in certain scenes with the dog, and with the outlaws who take in Valentine after he's exiled from court. (The outlaws dress like John Wayne and roam pine-grown outcroppings in the Hollywood hills.) But as a whole it's seductive. Steitzer has matched Shakespeare's comedy with a simple, witty idea, and the result is a production as clear and benign as the Italian sun.