THEATER | Guthrie gallops gayly through Elvis-era “Verona”

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In two of the most recent Guthrie productions I’ve seen, Shadowlands and A Delicate Balance, the actors fought losing battles to avoid being suffocated by the elaborate sets upon which they stood. With its current production of Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, director Joe Dowling finally gets it right; the show unapologetically glories in its elaborate artifice. Zero Mostel had it right in The Producers: “When you’ve got it, flaunt it! Flaunt it!”

the two gentlemen of verona, a play written by william shakespeare and directed by joe dowling. presented through march 29 at the guthrie theater, 818 s. 2nd st., minneapolis. for tickets ($29-$70) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

If anyone was concerned that the compact, efficient set for Henry V represented the Guthrie’s new standard for staging Shakespeare, Verona puts those fears decidedly to rest by turning the Wurtele Thrust Stage into a 1950s television studio where the Bard’s beloved romantic comedy is being staged in a contemporary setting. (“Contemporary” being the 50s.) In the most effective, least obnoxious theatrical use of video I’ve seen in a long time, the televised production appears on two large monitors to either side of the stage—we can see the live actors onstage, and we can see the actors as they supposedly appear to the folks at home in their living rooms. Even more miraculously, Dowling pulls off the trick of inserting live performances of original 50s-style pop songs into the show in a manner that enhances the play rather than distracts from it.

The performances aren’t especially subtle or convincing, but it seems that the first priority of everyone onstage was to have a lot of fun, and that’s the right attitude for viewers to bring as well. Most watchable among an irresistibly watchable cast is the reliable stage vet Jim Lichtscheidl as Lance, a “clownish servant” (as identified by Shakespeare) who converses ineffectually with his impassive mutt. As the eponymous gentlemen, Sam Bardwell and Jonas Goslow seem to be swimming upstream just to hold their own against their female foils (Sun Mee Chomet and Valeri Mudek), who are almost frighteningly frantic to make sure they end up being held by the appropriate hands.

The 50s were the perfect decade to choose for this recasting, not only because the melodramatic plot fits so well in the decade that gave us Roy Orbison and the Shangri-Las (both of whose songs are spoofed by Sasha Andreev, spot-on as a pompadoured crooner), but because in mid-century America, making the classics “accessible” by disregarding historical authenticity in performance practice was perfectly acceptable. If Leopold Stokowski can shake hands with Mickey Mouse, then why shouldn’t Shakespeare do the Twist?

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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