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THEATER REVIEW : Rapid-Fire Pace Becomes 'Gentlemen of Verona' : Director's fast takes and modest goals are right on target for the escapism of Shakespeare's minor comedy.


ROLLING HILLS ESTATES — Shakespeare Festival/LA has resolved the dilemma of how to stage the Bard's least popular comedy: in a hurry.

"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is definitely less ado about nothing. Fortunately, director Deborah Nitzberg not only recognizes this limitation, she transforms weakness into strength. Her goal is "user-friendly" theater, not a profound meditation on misguided adolescent passions, and Nitzberg's company hits its target dead center.

On a simple platform stage erected at the South Coast Botanic Gardens, employing merely a wooden balcony and floral backdrop, the implausible tale races by without pause for thought. Thanks to this populist pacing, plus modest goals and clarity of speech, minor Shakespeare becomes perfect summer escapist entertainment for the entire family.

Two cool dudes, Valentine and Proteus, discover through trial and error that love can devour gentle friendships. Valentine leaves Verona in search of adventure, but Proteus remains behind with his woman.

"I leave myself, my friends and all for love," Proteus sighs. He has abandoned himself to an obsession with a damsel named Julia.

But when Proteus' father insists that he too must discover the world, Proteus finds that his friend has fallen in love with Sylvia, the Duke of Milan's daughter. Alas, Proteus quickly dumps Julia and undermines his friend while pursuing Sylvia.

"False, perjured Proteus" declares: "In love, who respects friends?"

"Romeo and Juliet" it's not. "Two Gentlemen" remains a young writer's work, perhaps Shakespeare's earliest comedy. But glimpses of a more mature, complex, darker eros flicker throughout. So do motifs that later flourished in "As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night," as well as "Romeo and Juliet."

The performers work in unison like a seasoned ensemble, with no distracting star turns. Daniel Nathan Spector's Proteus sensitively overcomes his role's Iago-like characteristics and baffling motivations. John W. Gloria's Valentine is an admirable sluggard, a kind of well-meaning jock whose strategies invariably backfire. The character of Julia is the comedy's richest part, and Melanie van Betten beautifully captures her adolescent contradictions. Although a one-dimensional role, Stephanie Erb's Sylvia exhibits abundant range.

But this comedy justifiably belongs to its clowns. As Valentine's servant Speed, Andy Milder is a hoot. Even better is Patrick T. O'Brien's befuddled Launce, who delivers the funniest monologue to his dog--played here by a golden retriever of exquisite timing.

Once, Charles Laughton sincerely claimed that the character in "Gentleman" he most wished to portray was the servant's dog. During this production, we realize why. Man's best friend becomes an actor's best foil.

Director Nitzberg chose 1810 as the correct period for courtly love among young aristocrats. The costumes by Todd Roehrman admirably serve the production without distracting. At the outrageously contrived conclusion, Nitzberg hints at darker feminist and sexist subtexts--but quickly discards these somber issues of homosexual jealousy and male chauvinism.

Rate this Bard PG, but take jackets and blankets. Also, go early. The gates open at 6 p.m. for families wishing to picnic or for lovers wishing to stroll the charming gardens. Because it's festival seating, you'll want to sit close--otherwise, you'll miss much during the rapid-fire pace.

* "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," South Coast Botanic Gardens, 26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Rolling Hills Estates. Final performance, today, 8 p.m. $10-$12. (310) 316-3121. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. John W. Gloria Valentine

Daniel Nathan: Spector Proteus

Andy Milder: Speed

Melanie van Betten: Julia

Lisa Porter: Lucetta/Outlaw 2

George W. Flint: Antonio/Host

Jesus Ontiveros: Panthino/Eglamour

Stephanie Erb: Sylvia

Patrick T. O'Brien: Launce

Tom Ramirez: Duke

Mary Turnberg: Ursula

Brian Joseph: Outlaw 1/Musician

Christopher Paul Hart: Outlaw 3/Servant

A Shakespeare Festival/LA production. Directed by Deborah Nitzberg. Textual exposition by Diana Maddox. Music by Robert Murphy. Sets by Fred M. Duer. Costumes by Todd Roehrman. Lights by David Flad. Sound by Denny McLane.

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