Shakespeare wrote some weak endings in his time, but none so weak as what you'll find in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Considered by some critics to be the Bard's earliest play, Two Gentlemen concludes with a deeply weird reconciliation scene in which one of the heroes makes amends with another by offering to share his girlfriend. Never mind that the recipient of this gift, an unreformed cad named Proteus, attempted to rape her just a few moments before.
In other words, the play could stand a major rewrite. It's tough to improve on Shakespeare's best comedies; you have to be a pretty ingenious meddler to make As You Like It any better than it already is. But the only good things about Two Gentlemen are the clown Launce and his dog, Crab. The rest of the characters are ciphers or monsters. Rewrite them as recognizable human beings, and you suddenly have a play worth watching.
In her new musical The Verona Project, making its world premiere at the California Shakespeare Theater, writer-director Amanda Dehnert manages much more than that. She transforms Shakespeare's shallow, nonsensical play into a joyous and affecting story of flawed people stumbling into love.
Dehnert's story is more or less the same as Shakespeare's, except a little more gay. (Many critics have remarked on the homoerotic tension in Two Gentlemen; Dehnert simply foregrounds that element.) As the play opens, we meet Proteus (Dan Clegg) and Valentine (Nate Trinrud), boyhood friends in a rural backwater. When Proteus falls for local beauty Julia (Arwen Anderson), Valentine's heart breaks a little — he'd always envisioned Proteus as his own true love. Leaving the lovebirds to fend for themselves, Valentine heads to the big city, where he meets a handsome young prince named Sylvio (Phil Mills), who would be perfect boyfriend material if he weren't engaged to high-society flibbertigibbet Thuria (Elena Wright) by order of the murderous Duke (Adam Yazbeck). After much poor communication, mistaken identity, and a little bit of cross-dressing, the couples sort themselves out, this time without resorting to rape. One of the more impressive things about The Verona Project is that Dehnert makes psychological sense of Shakespeare's original ending without changing it entirely.
The music is exceptional in a folkish indie-rock sort of way. (My date, a fella in his early 30s who, like me, has a longstanding affection for the music produced by labels like Sub Pop, could hardly wipe the big stupid grin off his face from show's beginning to show's end.) All of the actors play at least one instrument, and they sing with an unaffected emotionalism that's totally disarming. While The Verona Project sometimes hits the whimsy button a bit too hard, and its conclusion is heavy on platitudes, it's still a happy-making enterprise full of characters who see no need to apologize for a little bit of genuine, bluntly expressed feeling. This is the rare play for which the word "sentimental" is both accurate and not necessarily a criticism. The tender feelings stirred me more here than in A.C.T.'s much-too-ballyhooed staging of Tales of the City, another big-hearted musical about naive dreamers finding urban love.
The production looks fantastic. Daniel Ostling's vintage-modern set is a fine match for Melissa Torchia's shabby-chic costumes, even if all of the characters appear to have spent way too much time shopping in Hayes Valley. As for the performances, the show owes most of its success to the efforts of a young, attractive, thoroughly likable cast. Strongest of all is Anderson, whose Julia is an awkward naif weighed down with sadness but not consumed by self-pity. Wright's Thuria is pure off-kilter charm, even as she stands in the way of true love. And Trinrud gorgeously embodies the heartache known to any gay guy who has ever been in thrall to a bisexual douchebag.
Your mileage may vary. After the final curtain, I overheard more than one patron describing the show as simplistic, amateurish, unworthy. Within my admittedly incomplete sampling, every griper appeared to be at least 65. That may even be part of Cal Shakes' calculation. The Verona Project unabashedly courts a younger, modish crowd of Mission gays and soft-hearted hipsters — an audience with a limited inclination toward Bardolatry. Not everyone will love the show, but those who do will love it extravagantly. And when was the last time anybody said that about The Two Gentlemen of Verona?