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Stage Light

Nothing Gentle in This 'Verona'


You could set Shakespeare's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" in hell, or on Mars. Part of the comedy's perpetual attraction is that it can be set just about anywhere.

But at the Eclectic Company Theatre, director James Serpento's pre-fascist Italy staging suggests that this early work of the Bard's could have no darker setting.

Certainly, it could hardly have a darker attitude. In most "Gentlemen," though the initial friendship between Verona born-and-bred Valentine and Proteus becomes one of jealousy, trickery and deceit (by Proteus against Valentine), the reconciliation is sunny, since the lovers are properly matched up. This is the law of order governing all Shakespeare comedies, but the feeling at the end of Serpento's version is less the feeling of hearts reunited than the law of a jackboot to the ribs. Valentine's final call for "our mutual happiness" has seldom sounded more poisonously ironic.

There are those who won't like what Serpento has done here--audiences who equate comedy with happiness--but even they can't deny that this is an exceptionally intelligent, impassioned reading of a tricky play.

We don't know how Jeffrey Cannata (replacing Patrick Hancock for the rest of the run) will appear, but Hancock's Valentine looked capable of doing some nefarious business, while Brian Brightman's Proteus looks pure as the driven snow. It's clever casting, since appearances--like Proteus himself--deceive.

The show is full of terrific casting, combined with the sense of upturned expectations. A typically minor role like Lucetta, the waiting woman of Proteus' original love Julia, has seldom been given the affecting attention that Mia Drake provides, suggesting a whole back story of past family turbulence. Victoria Gallegos' Julia tones down the girl's coquettish side for a more troubled adolescent storm of feelings. Similarly, in tandem with this staging's more vexed manner is David Fruechting's Duke of Milan, whose unmasking of Valentine's plot to flee with his daughter, Silvia (Amy Motta), seems rougher and more manipulating than usual.

Motta herself comes off as a little rich ice queen, perhaps too much so to attract the likes of Valentine. Her final abuse by the stalking, plotting Proteus--for a rare time in any version of "Gentlemen," Proteus nearly rapes Silvia--is startling and savage, a nervy stroke by this staging to hint at the kinds of terrors to come under Mussolini, whose voice can be heard throughout on the radio.

Serpento never overstates this point, but the cultural crudeness in the background does explain the lies and tricks at the story's heart. Besides, this show doesn't forget that there's also pure, funny comedy here as well, best carried off by Ted Barton's Launce, whose timing is brilliant, while his dog, Crab (tiny black Chihuahua Quincy), is an ideal sidekick.

With the Eclectic's stage slightly expanded, many of the show's stage pictures are marvelous, completed by Yevgenia Nayberg's curiously effective set and Bryan Schulte's varying lighting schemes.


"The Two Gentlemen of Verona," Eclectic Company Theatre, Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 21. $10-$12. (818) 508-3003. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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