Played on a set designed as a small replica of London’s newly reconstructed Globe Theater, the Intl. Shakespeare Globe Center’s visiting production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” offers New York audiences both a chance to glimpse the “wooden O” and a delightful presentation of one of the Bard’s lesser works. “Gentlemen,” a harsh descent into love, betrayal and deceit, is made accessible by director Jack Shepherd and a top-notch cast in an interpretation as modern as the attractive GQ-style suits on view.
The Globe Center, which debuted this production in August at the still-under-reconstruction Globe in London, is devoted to presenting Shakespeare’s works in the spirit of the Bard’s times, so houselights stay up to simulate an outdoor daylight performance. Since the plays originally were performed in contemporary dress, so are they now. And in the conversational cadences of the performances, “Gentlemen” has an easy, modern feel without the forced topicality and pretension that undoes so many Shakespeare updatings.
Not that the production (presented here by New York’s Theater for a New Audience) succeeds in elevating “Gentlemen” to top-drawer Shakespeare. The play falls short on verbal poetry, and the production would have been better served by cutting, or at least speeding up, various slow-moving interludes. “Gentlemen” often is remembered for the inclusion of a dog in the cast, and the mongrel that “plays” Crab is charmingly deadpan (or well-behaved, for the less anthropomorphically inclined), but the extended scenes he shares with his master , Launce (Jim Bywater), wear thin.
Globe artistic director Mark Rylance takes the lead role of Proteus, the hangdog hero who reveals himself to be anything but heroic. After pledging his love to Julia (Stephanie Roth) and his friendship to Valentine (Lennie James), Proteus betrays both by falling for Valentine’s beloved, Silvia (Anastasia Hille). What begin as prankish machinations turn cruel and violent.
These abrupt shifts in mood certainly are among the play’s more troublesome aspects (modern audiences will simply have to accept the dastardly Proteus’ redemption), but the Globe’s production (pacing problems notwithstanding) goes a considerable way in smoothing over the bumps. Rylance is particularly good, playing Proteus with a boyish petulance that gradually gives way to something darker.
As Valentine, the betrayed friend, James is cool and thoughtful, while Roth gets off to an overwrought start as Julia but eases into a funny, moving turn as the character goes undercover as a boy (complete with backwards ball cap and construction boots). Hille is wonderfully aristocratic as Silvia, and the rest of the cast performs with precision. An ensemble this good, on a set this lovely , builds as strong a case for “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” as we’re likely to see.