SAN DIEGO–Director Laird Williamson gives a satisfying lesson in how to maximize potential with this tasty version of one of Shakespeare’s less-esteemed comedies. Williamson even gets a top performance from a spaniel.
“Verona,” one of the Bard’s early plays, is generally regarded less for its own merits than as a presage of goodies to come. Aspects of its plot–women dressing as men, deception easily forgiven, and a contrived, magical ending in a forest–show up repeatedly, and usually to better effect, in later works.
The major problem with “Verona” rests with the character of Proteus, one of the title characters. Most of the story revolves around his betrayal of Valentine, his lifelong and devoted buddy, in an attempt to woo and win Valentine’s lady love, Silvia. In doing so, Proteus forsakes his betrothed, Julia. Not exactly the actions of a gentleman — more those of a major scuzzball.
Thus the director’s dilemma: how to stage a comedy in which one of the heroes is essentially unsavory.
Williamson handles it as if the two gents represented one, a metaphor for the noble and nasty selves that combine in everyone. The actors playing Valentine and Proteus, Steven Flynn and Mark Moses, respectively, look alike and sound alike.
In the early scenes, as they profess their unshakable friendship, they even dress alike, in vivid shades of red. Later, Proteus’ apparel, like his nature, turns dark–one of many witty facets of Andrew V. Yelusich’s resplendent costume design.
Those costumes, delightfully ambiguous and anachronistic, contribute to Williamson’s emphasis on this play as fantasy and universal. That point is made immediately with Richard Seger’s spare and ethereal set, all sky blue and clouds with large geometric structures curving gracefully behind a bare stage painted to look like the grillwork for a window on the world below.
In this other-worldly zone, the story proceeds, with Proteus living up to his name by changing personalities in a flash, usually that of a pretty eye. Moses, the best of a bevy of earnest youths dominating this cast, makes those swings surprisingly credible and does reasonably well with Shakespeare’s romantic song “Who Is Silvia?” although Williamson wisely provides a backup chorus.
Besides providing an intelligent vision for a dubious script, Williamson has elicited adequacy or better from most of the youngsters, notably Susannah Hoffman as Julia. And he draws fine support from some veterans in lesser roles, particularly the dependable Richard Easton, doing double duty as parental nobility.
As always, clownish servants liven up matters. Here the favorites are Tony Simotes and Jeffrey Allan Chandler. Simotes provides a perky sass just right for the bright orange uniform and cap that make him look a bellboy at the Sunkist hotel. And Chandler has the challenge of playing virtually all of his scenes with a dog. He holds his own, despite some attention-grabbing scratching and yawning from the remarkably well-behaved animal.
Yelusich’s costumes–usually one intense hue per person, and color-coordinated with the letters they send and receive–would stand out even in a less scanty setting, and Peter Maradudin’s evocative lighting helps especially in stage effects such as simulated rainstorms. Jeff Ladman has provided reliable sound for the outdoor stage.
Williamson has meshed all the elements into an excellent production that totals much more than its parts.