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.