OSF seeks the ‘man’ in TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

The all-female version of "Two Gents" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival brilliantly explores what it means to become a man

By HAILEY BACHRACH

How do you become a man?

As an actress onstage, that is. There are traditional costuming clues, of course, like binding your breasts and cutting your hair. But do you puff out your chest and swagger, or is it better to affect a casual air and a slouch? How best to modulate your voice, to make sure no sudden squeaks or cracks give you away? When your best friend is leaving home for the first time, should you stick to shaking hands, or can you hug?

Sarah Rasmussen, director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s current all-female production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, seems to have noticed that the eponymous young protagonists of Shakespeare’s play are asking themselves the same questions. Early on in the play, the father of one of said gentlemen acknowledges that his son “cannot be a perfect man,/Not being tried and tutor’d in the world.” He needs to travel, either to court or the wars or university. “Whither were I best to send him?” the father frets. What makes a perfect man?

Sofia Jean Gomez and Celeste Den in OSF's all-women version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona"/Jenny Graham

Sofia Jean Gomez and Celeste Den in OSF’s all-women version of “Two Gentlemen of Verona”/Jenny Graham

In this, one of Shakespeare’s earliest (if not his first) comedies, best friends Proteus and Valentine find themselves separated for the first time when they embark on apparently incompatible paths to manhood: Proteus is madly in love with the Veronese maiden Julia, whereas Valentine is off to make a name for himself in the court of Milan. Their mirrored goals find mirrored looks in actresses Sofia Jean Gomez and Christiana Clark. Both tall and husky voiced, Gomez’s Valentine sports a bleach-blond fringe and an exuberant grace, while Clark’s Proteus has cultivated an impressive bouffant and a studied languor. Valentine flails, Proteus saunters. Both prove false. Valentine throws over his devotion to a single life when he falls in love with the Duke of Milan’s daughter Silvia; Proteus loses himself when he, too, is enraptured with Silvia’s beauty and decides to betray both Julia and Valentine to win her heart.

As usual in Shakespeare, running in parallel to the hapless lovers are their servants, the quippy Speed (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) and the duller Launce (K.T. Vogt), who is famously the owner of the only dog to appear onstage in a Shakespeare play. Vogt turns Launce into what is best described as a Renaissance Melissa (Mike & Molly) McCarthy. She has an easy rapport with the audience and keeps Launce winning, especially in speeches that have the potential to slip into whininess delivered by a less skilled actor. The friendship between the two servants felt stronger than it often does, strengthening the sense of their antics as a mirror of their masters’.

The Renaissance-inspired costumes by Moria Sine Clinton don’t strain to hide the actors’ female bodies; only one secondary character sports a fake goatee, and most of the women wear their natural hair, cut short or elaborately pinned. The actors’ physicality is equally effortless. There are no codpieces, no exaggerated leg-splaying. Only once is sudden shrillness of voice used for comic effect, and even then, it is not a jab at the woman hidden in the guise of ‘Proteus,’ but the boy still lurking beneath the man that Proteus is trying so hard to become.

Shakespeare, reflecting a broader cultural idea of the period, draws frequent comparisons in his plays between boys and women. It’s a nod, of course, to the fact that women were played by boys at the time, but it can also be seen to imply the opposite: The reason that boys worked so well as women is because their similarities were already culturally recognized. “Boys and women are for the most part cattle of this color,” Rosalind explains when describing the moodiness of a woman in love. As a man grew to maturity, in theory, he left these womanish traits behind in favor of masculine temperance and rationality.

Sofia Jean Gomez wins Vivia Font in OSF' s "Two Gentlemen of Verona"/ T. Charles Erickson

Sofia Jean Gomez wins Vivia Font in OSF’ s “Two Gentlemen of Verona”/ T. Charles Erickson

Proteus and Valentine certainly haven’t. And they are matched in their moodiness and desperate attempts to rationalize their irrational feelings by their lovers. Especially in the plays that lack a Beatrice or a Rosalind, I’ve found recently that the female lovers tend to be the weak link in many productions of Shakespeare. Not here. Erica Sullivan (Julia) and Vivia Font (Silvia) make a compelling performative case for Julia and Silvia’s inclusion alongside Beatrice, Rosalind, and others of Shakespeare’s canniest heroines.

Julia and Silvia aren’t just virtuous paragons, either, which is what makes the ladies so much fun. They’re as giddy and depressed and frustrated and confused by their first experience of love as their boys are, though they handle it with a bit more grace. Unlike so many directors of Two Gents, Rasmussen has realized that some comic wailing, flouncing, and squealing doesn’t mean that Julia and Silvia can’t also be intelligent and determined. Allowing the women to exist in as many shades of silliness as the men proves to be one of the keys to untangling the play’s knotty ending. Because we have come to believe in their complexity, we believe too that Julia and Silvia are consciously making the difficult decisions that come in the final moments of the play.

Two Gentlemen of Verona belongs right alongside The Taming of the Shrew when it comes to uncomfortable final scenes in a comedy. As in Shrew, sexual violence and then everyone skipping off to the wedding feast bump a little too close together for most modern audiences to readily accept. But while Gomez and Clark don’t seek to embody any kind of stereotypical maleness, watching Valentine and Proteus fumble to flirt, dance, and fit in at court through female bodies is a constant and striking reminder that the title of ‘gentleman’ to which they aspire is no more (or less) natural to a pair of men than it is to the pair of women playing them. Their comic failures are in pursuit of an impossible ideal: They can no more become the “perfect gentleman” their fathers long for than Gomez and Clark can. For the first time, I found Proteus’s sudden horror at what he has become to be convincing. This is due in large part to Clark’s tremendous performance, which leads us to the obvious dissonance between Proteus and his ideal self in the text. His increasing panic about this disconnect explodes naturally, and when it ebbs, the regret that remains feels clear-eyed and truthful.

Perhaps the most stirring realization of the evening was the depth of talent evident in the cast. Even minor characters felt fully realized (Celeste Den’s ridiculous Thurio deserves mention), and not a line of verse was out of place. Both Gomez and Clark’s skill interpreting and delivering text places them with some of the best actors I’ve seen at the festival. It’s sobering to realize how little opportunity these women have to display their abilities within Shakespeare’s canon, and exciting that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was willing to become one of very few professional theatres interested in producing an all-female Shakespeare play. Far more than a gimmick or a superficial gesture towards equality, this production offers ample proof that all-female casts can transform and illuminate the familiar texts—and in this case, perhaps even improve them (at least to the modern eye).

Particularly in his early career, Shakespeare was fascinated by how a boy becomes a man, and what that man should look like. As the Oregon Shakespeare Festival embarks on its efforts to complete the canon in record time, I can only hope that they’ll choose to undertake some of these explorations of manhood once again through the voices and bodies of women.

NOTE

Read Hailey Bachrach’s review of OSF’s Richard III and Dan Donohue’s superb performance as Richard.

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