SOMETIMES YOU WONDER whether life didn't indenture itself to Shakespeare back in the 16th century--in a reversal of the playwright's usual servitude to life. The turn of his phrase chafes human nature like a beggar come in from the cold of the inarticulate actual world. And if something as grand as life once went beggaring to Shakespeare, then it's hardly surprising that so many playwrights and actors have also looked to him for inspiration. John Guare and Mel Shapiro found that the Two Gentlemen of Verona were still around in 1971, only they happened to be a black and Puerto Rican, just as West Side Story had flushed Romeo and Juliet out of Manhattan slums a decade earlier. Shakespeare's influence barely surfaces until the end of West Side Story, when it takes the form of a tragic denoument that is a cloying mistake. But Guare and Shapiro's adaptation gamely borrows both language and plot from its original with no harm done.
Two Gentlemen of Verona has seldom figured prominently or popularly in the Shakespearean repertory. With the exception of the rube Launce, its characters aren't particularly distinctive, and a false resolution awkwardly forestalls a more probable and good-humored one. But the play's unevenness worked in favor of this musical adaptation. The writers deleted and redistributed Shakespeare's lines, sharing the eloquence more equably and getting things done with less dalliance. Guare heightened the farce and added intrigue to personalities by setting each character to a modern musical rhythm with lyrics to match, in idioms such as Motown, salsa or samba. He collaborates well with his predecessor. There's a different kind of earthiness in each of them, and a lively counterpoint develops between the out-front 20th-century numbers and the Shakespearean run-around of the spoken parts.
Two Gentlemen spares the obvious potential for social statements in the black and Puerto Rican casting, limiting trendiness to the score. Shakespeare's plot remains largely intact, with its orderly parallels between pairs of individuals. There are the skeptics towards love, Julia and Valentine, and those who use seductive wiles to break them, Proteus and Silvia. There are the two masters and the two servants, each couple bound in friendship though capable of deceit. And then there's the dog Crab, who qualifies for both categories. The mutt is not only ungrateful for the constant companionship of Launce, he even sullies the courtship between Launce's master (Proteus) constant companionship of Launce, he even sullies the courtship between Launce's master (Proteus) and Julia, prompting a mortified reproach from the ever-patient Launce: "Did not I bid thee still mark me, and do as I do? When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentlewoman's farthingale. Didst thou ever see me do such a trick?"
WHERE THE MUSICAL DIVERGES from Shakespeare, the difference seems less like a change than a clever exploitation of submerged meaning in the original. In the adapted version, Proteus doesn't merely leave Julia's affection in the lurch, he leaves her pregnant, too. A vehement argument sung in four-part disharmony ensues on the desirability and proper emotional upbringing of illegitimate children. While Shakespeare doesn't wrangle over issues as pragmatic as pregnancy in this play, you wonder if he didn't have more on his mind than Julia's male disguise when he put these words in her mouth: "It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,/Women to change their shape than men their minds."
Given that Shakespeare's delicate handling of indelicate subjects has burgeoned into blatant indelicacy these days, burlesque has surely become the right accent for romance. Guare and Shapiro's Two Gentlemen of Verona revels in the vulgarity of sex and the naivety of love; it treats the profounder pretensions of lovers and politicians and wealth with sarcasm. It teaches no lessons and believes in happy endings. It declaims old poetry and drives new music hard at you. It requires relaxed yet precise coordination which the production in Harvard Yard, directed by John Bard Manulis, pulls off with only minor hitches.
The smooth choreography of the Citizens of Verona and Milan and the alert timing and confident sound of the orchestra provides the back-drop for a demanding variety of song and dance numbers parceled out among a handful of actors. The isolated soliloquies and duologues of Shakespeare's play carry over into frequent solo and duo performances of Guare's lurics. The music does not make operatic claims on the actors' voices, but its idiosyncratic Spanish and soul-based timing can be tricky. What with the generous amplification, no one is under much strain.
Bruce LeNeal Adams as Valentine boasts a wonderfully resonant baritone, and he eases into a hint of falsetto and sly diction worthy of an Al Green. He tends to mumble over Shakespeare's lines, but there's a certain gullible, soft-hearted appeal in his stage presence. Cliff Richmond plays the treacherous Proteus with appropriately self-centered determination. At times he comes on to himself a little bit too strongly, wiping out the supporting cast through sheer force of neglect. But he displays admirable versatility, tripping with facility from the Spanish pronunciation and non-verbal cries of his Puerto Rican phrases to the controlled and conversational command of Shakespearean verse.
Jennifer Marre's Julia stands out from the rest of the cast with Elizabethan integrity. Her singing is competent, her spoken Spanish sassy, but her forte lies in the elegant enunciation of Shakespeare's lines with a pleasing hint of an English accent. Her waiting-woman Lucetta (Annie Fine) has the only vaguely Puerto Rican visage of the lot and sings with stern indignation about "The Land of Betrayal." Judy Banks as Silvia dances with enough seductive verve to convince you that indeed she "wouldn't know a spiritual relationship."
In the midst of a fray of adequate imitation Elizabethan costumes, topped off by sundry apple hats, Fred Barton's Launce cuts the incongruous figure of a country bumpkin crossed with a New England preppie. Attired in billowy corduroy knickers and some kind of felt pot pulled over his wire-rimmed spectacles, he lopes through his role with slack-mouthed, loose-limbed, knock-kneed charm. His throaty voice and lascivious gestures make "Pearls" one of the funniest song and mimes in the show. Launce and his fellow servant Speed (Jonathan Alex Prince) run through some congenial duets on the way to the ale house, and Speed makes up for his raspy voice with quick foot work. Apparently, Speed's affinity for fruit is supposed to be comic, but all he ever does with the apples is eat them and the banana-rape is a tired gag.
AMONG THE LESSER CHARACTERS, the Duke of Milan is almost guaranteed to make a hit. Paris K.C. Barclay presides over "Bring All the Boys Back Home" in robust and jazzy style, accompanied by his spry side-kick, Thurio (Stephen Hayes), who has been poured into a snazzy green and orange jester's outfit with token military trimmings. The transformation of Shakespeare's Duke into a war-mongering politician hasn't dated since the demise of the Vietnam war. Eglamour's singing voice tends to coast out of key, and the Chinese dragon he musters to his aid is lovely but a bit perplexing, as John Bacquie is not oriental. The togaed Cupid flitting in the ramparts of the monumentally tiered set is a gratuitous curiosity, whose arrows lamely deflect off the mainstream action.
Two Gentlemen of Verona launches itself with the chorus, "What would you like to do with your life?" And the bemused response, "That's a very interesting question, nobody's ever asked me that question," rebounds from the skip ropes, skateboards and yoyos of the final dizzying crowd--apprenticed to life, no questions asked.
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