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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Two Gentlemen of Verona

He after honour hunts, I after love./He leaves his friends to dignify them more;/I leave myself, my friends, and all, for love.— Proteus.
Photo of April Fritz and Erika Soto. Photo by Grettel Cortes
Another summer means another occasion for Shakespearean revelry out by the abandoned bear caves in the old Griffith Park Zoo. We bring the food and the Independent Shakespeare Company (ISC) supplies the entertainment, free of charge. That's been the deal for over a decade and now ISC has cycled back to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the first play produced by the company in partnership with the LA Department of Parks and Recreation 13 summers ago in Barnsdall Park. Of course, the ISC players are not ones to wax nostalgic. Whether comedy or tragedy is on the Will of fare, ISC is ready to party, and their diverse, all-ages, park-going audience seems ever-primed to join in.

They'll really need that reveling spirit given what a clunker Two Gents has eternally proven to be. This play is nearly untamable — not that ISC doesn't give it a valiant effort.

David Melville's production contains no shortage of music (much of it out of the ‘50s, hailing the birth of rock-and-roll) and occasional bits of comic snap. A bopping Patrick Batiste sets the production's musical pace and William Elsman, Xavi Moreno and Melville lead the antics. So there's plenty of occasion for toe-tapping and chuckling. The romantic entanglements of Proteus, Valentine, Julia and Sylvia, on the other hand, are a slog even in the hands of the plenty-capable actors portraying them.

Given how infrequently the play is staged, a plot reminder is in order. Two Gents opens with eternal friends Proteus (Evan Lewis Smith) and Valentine (Nikhil Pai) on the verge of separation. Valentine is off to the Duke of Milan's court while Proteus, a character in love with being in love, stays behind in Verona to solidify his attachment to Julia (Erika Soto). Circumstances eventually send Proteus to Milan to join Valentine whereupon Proteus promptly falls in love with Val's lady Sylvia (Sylvia Kwan). This feckless course set, Proteus betrays both Valentine and Julia and doesn't feel especially ashamed. At the performance I attended, every time Smith monologued over his perfidy, the audience sighed a disappointed “awwww.” You get the idea that a more liquored up crowd in Griffith Park might well boo the bounder.

There's also a dog named Crab, property of Proteus's servant Launce (played by Melville). The various descriptions of Crab's misbehavior have the potential to bring down the house depending on either the cuteness of the mutt or the comic chops of the actor playing his owner. Melville, a deft comic actor, takes no risk of being upstaged. He strips down to his drawers and makes characters out of his cast-off clothing. Panting away quietly as Crab with no heavy-handed doggie antics is Lorenzo Gonzales, whose triple-duty action also includes turns as Proteus's father Antonio and Sylvia's buffoonish wooer Thurio, all of which he dispatches with brio. And, as Crab, he chimes in a series of woofs during an intermission song.

Shakespeare frequently seems to be given a free pass on Two Gents because he was young when he wrote it, because he did so many of these things so much better in later plays and, well, because he was Shakespeare. Girl dressed in drag? Check. Still, the decision by the spurned Julia (Erika Soto) to disguise herself as the page Sebastian to pursue her Proteus feels like a late-plot convenience rather than inventiveness. Still, Soto and April Fitz as the brassy maid Lucetta milk some yuks out of Fritz's stuffing a full set of pantaloons down Soto's drawers to fill out her codpiece and Soto's experimenting with her new, er, package.

Cumbersome undergarments aren't simply a girl thing in fair Verona (or Milan, as the case may be). Pai's Valentine corsets himself with a smuggled rope ladder wound around his torso that he plans to use to steal off with Sylvia (Sylvia Kwan). He almost gets away with it but for Sylvia's father, the Duke of Milan (Elsman) being alerted to the plan and making poor Valentine join him for tea . Settling into a chair while wearing a rope ladder around your middle isn't the easiest situation to negotiate as a contortioning Pai so humorously proves.

As is frequently the ISC way, the play itself is bracketed by pre-show entertainment, plenty of musical numbers, and a drawn-out intermission during which people can take pictures with the actors or play a few rounds of Bard Hole (a kind of bean bag toss). Given the pace and the extras, you'll hit your car by 10:30. The scenery, as always, is beautiful and the overall experience a unique L.A. tradition. But I can't help anticipating the summer of 2018 when ISC will be back in the park with a comedy that isn't such a dog.

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The Two Gentlemen of Verona
By William Shakespeare
Directed by David Melville
Cast: Patrick Batiste, Josh Duron, William Elsman, April Fritz, Lorenzo González, Sylvia Kwan, Evan Lewis Smith, David Melville, Xavi Moreno, Nikhil Pai, Katie Powers-Faulk, Erika Soto
Scenic Design: Caitlin Lainoff
Costume Design: Rouxuan Li
Lighting Design: Bosco Flannagan
Music Director: Dave Beukers
Stage Manager: Pat Loeb
Plays through September 3, 2017 at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park, Los Angeles. (818) 710-6306,
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one 10 minute intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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