Saturday, July 20, 2013

Enthralled by "Two Gents"...of the DelShakes Variety!

Guest Blogger Tizzy Lockman is a near lifelong Wilmingtonian — taking breaks in her teens & 20s to study and live abroad. She has a BA in film and linguistics from New York University, and works as a media producer and nonprofit program manager. While raising an active daughter, Tizzy's hobbies include working with local schools, youth work, nonprofit board service and various community activism and events. She LOVES live music and theatre, but never gets to see as much of it as she would wish.

Balmy midsummer evenings are chockfull of outdoor offerings for culture seekers, alongside our neighbors and those giant dragonflies. And during this theatrical off-season, amidst such a variety of concerts and music festivals to choose from, the Delaware Shakespeare Festival (DSF) has emerged as summer's un-missable entertainment option.  Now in their 11th year, it seems DSF has hit their stride, adeptly combining old classical ways with their own traditions, professionalism with a refreshing spirit that meets the needs of mid-July crowds of Shakespeare lovers.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona may be unlikely to rank in the Top Ten of the casual Shakespeare fans most familiar titles — I know that, for me, it was a play I'd never seen or read before last Saturday’s opening night. And this lack of expectation is likely to give the performance a bit of an edge for audience members similarly new to the story.  One of Shakespeare's earliest comedy works, the play is surprisingly light and accessible, while managing not to spare any tricks of adventure, humor or depth.

DSF brings Two Gents to life with a cast that is remarkable in its youthfulness and professionalism. Allowing the language of Shakespeare to slip off their tongues with natural tones as if it were the latest slang, and their physical characterization to keep every word understandable to the modern ear.The four romantic leads in particular (Adam Darrow as Proteus, Brandon Pierce as Valentine, Clare Mahoney as Julia, and Emilie Krause as Silvia) are perfectly suited to portray the story of the frivolity of young men and women at crossroads, about to launch themselves towards their futures. Centered around a pair of charming best friends — the ambitious Valentine and the romantic Proteus — we meet them as the two are taking steps in different directions, the latter focused on love and the former on establishing his status in society.  But being a comedy, wires are soon to be crossed...

The comedy itself isn’t Shakespeare’s most perfect — some of the twists late in the plot beg a forgiving audience — but the cast has done such a fine job of shaping the characters they play throughout the early scenes, that makes it easier to take the leap with them and accept the surprising and outlandish decisions that make up the final act. It is a play devoted to themes of betrayal and infidelity, the foibles and madness of youth.  The four primary characters develop over the arc of the performance, at great credit to the actors. Proteus and Valentine change the most remarkably. Proteus transforming from a guileless youth to calculating deviant, and the initially cynical Valentine becomes the lost and lovelorn one. In the end, both are stronger for their evolution. Instead of seeming ridiculous, you can read their actions, such as Valentine forgiving Proteus for his plentiful indiscretions, as heroic and instructive.

Where there are gentlemen (and women) there must be servants, and the show provides a Downton Abbey-esque parallel set of players in these roles. Far from standing in the shadows of their masters, these character are broader, and the standout comedians of the night.  In particular are Speed (Max Cove), Launce (Griffin Stanton-Amiesen) and Lucetta (Caroline Crocker). They move along the action and give us breaks from it; and the inclusion of Crab the dog (played during my performance by the scruffy Prince) brings with it levity and familiar sweet laughs (along with the tension of having an animal on the live stage).

The simple staging, unadorned apart from a bouquet of colorful umbrellas, allows these performances to shine. Different this year from the past several is the flipping of the theatre — the Rockwood house to our backs, the audience is gazing down into the park, with trees as a backdrop, and entrances visible at the periphery. When the sun set at my showing, the footlights brought the set into vibrant color and cast the well-blocked figures' shadows large against the backdrop of the trees.  It was enchanting. The sound system was clear as a bell — a notable improvement from past years for which they deserve to be praised.

The Delaware Shakespeare Festival has used its past decade to develop some great traditions: Entrances from the crowd that make you feel as if you've happened upon the action, and the cast makes a hasty exit from their bows to line the path where the audience exits. It’s a reversal in which the audience feels it is being given the utmost respect by the stars they’ve spent the past hours watching.

All in all, a charming cast portraying a fun story in a bucolic setting — our local Shakespeare seems to get better with each passing year. The large and appreciative audience at my show seemed to agree; a third had attended three or more DSF performances, and more than half were brand new to the experience. One mutual happiness, indeed!

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