I was away when "Two Gentlemen of Verona" opened in Central Park in July and so didn't catch up with it until it played a brief return engagement there at summer's end, warming up, as it were, for the winter. On the night I saw it Mayor Lindsay was present, and when the jumping-jack boys and girls of Verona and Milan ripped into a finale composed of soaring frisbees, furiously flipped ping-pong paddles, and showers of shredded flowers, the contagion out front grew so intense that Mr. Lindsay found himself propelled stageward. Hurdling the few tiers of seats that separated him from the gyrating, elbow-jogging revelers, he managed to make it to the stage, safe and grinning, where he proceeded to keep pace with the rest and the best of them. He was luminous, memorable. He was even on beat.
Although he has not been retained for the present company, nearly everyone else has, which means that we can now have June in January or at least the joys of July in the uncertainties of December, and a good thing that is. The New York Shakespeare Festival's play-ground style mounting of "Two Gentlemen of Verona", currently and comfortably tucked into the St. James, remains an altogether charming variation on a theme Shakespeare borrowed and varied in the first place (it's just an example of recycling), merry in its bumptiousness, ingratiating in its mockery, wonderfully easy about all that irreverence. The simplicity of its high spirits does the trick.
High spirits have to be strenuously manufactured these days, as a rule, but not here. However director Mel Shapiro, composer galt MacDermot, and lyricist John Guare have managed to generate them, they seems to drift up idly as soap bubbles through the cracks in the stage floor (I almost forgot, there are soap bubbles in that finale, too, only they drift downward from sky-high scaffolding rather than up). From the time that a hapless lover named Thurio ambles out in white satin to spin himself around a pole and yodel a few bars of "Love In Bloom" in his cracked nightingale's voice, the pressure is off and the party is on.
Everyone's taken Shakespeare and a few problems the twentieth century has dreamed up that Shakespeare knew nothing of, in stride. The evening isn't parody, or insult, or anything-for-a-buck opportunism. It's simply carefree, using Shakespeare's plot line and a fairish bit of his dialogue, all right, but gliding off into song whenever it feels like it, which is practically all of the time. I suppose it's nearest country cousin, if you are looking for relationships, would be "Your Own Thing", but even that one insisted on a mod book of its own and the clothes of the counterculture. This looks like Shakespeare. It just sounds sassy.
"What's a nice heart like mine doing in my mouth?" sings one young swain who finds himself all too ready to switch playmates if the new lass is dazzling enough. "What does a lover pack?" sings a chap with a hamper taking leave of his so temporarily loved one (he packs his heart, among other things). "And your pearls get into my mouth" is the plaint and plight of a seducer who has unwisely supplied his new passion with just too many baubles. (To keep the record straight, the plaint is sung for him by one of the assistant clowns; he is much too busy with the problem at hand.) Two bitter girls, one pregnant, have borrowed boys' clothes from a couple of handy scarecrows and have come all the way to Milan to see if they can get their hands on the fickle men of the piece:
"We come from the land of betrayal,
An Indian word for hate;
But the people smile all the time there
And the cultural advantages are great."
Lyricist Guare has perfectly insinuated himself into the small rift that exists between Shakespeare's sensibility and our own. Shakespeare was often a cynic, always a realist. His plots are not paeans to constancy. We merely phrase our double-dealings a bit differently, while going about the same double-dealings. It is into this slightly altered cant of ours that Mr. Guare can slip his "And the cultural advantages are great" without in the least taking leave of what Shakespeare was talking about. Mr. Guare is impertinent but always probable, you feel Shakespeare would grasp his way of putting it, and not mind the rock or Latin-American beats.
As a result it is easy for the entertainment to move either way - into now or into iambic pentameter. Most of what Raul Julia, as the spectacularly unfaithful Proteus tells us at the end of Act One is Shakespeare's own language, even if Mr. Julia does dress amusingly in half-mast Puerto Rican. Mr. Julia is telling us that, having first betrayed Julia (that's his girl), he is now going to betray his best friend in order to betray his best friend's girl. Sheer villainy, it would seem. But because the lyrics and music have been so light-heartedly cold-blooded, because the leer in Mr. Julia's owlish eye is such a happy and practical leer, we hear his splendid rationalization ("I to myself am dearer than a friend") as both Shakespeare's and our own. Mr. Julia has transmuted villainy into perfidy, and perfidy is funny. He has been able to do it because he has been buoyed up all along by the caustic, sometimes plain and blunt, always attentive and responsive (to the narrative, to the source) lyrics of Mr. Guare. After Shakespeare's, Mr. Guare's contribution to the festivities may be the greatest (he has also worked with Mr. Shapiro on the evening's over-all shape).
mr. MacDermot is a fine partner for him, supplying the lovelorn of two cities with rhythms ranging (without clash) from rock to bluesy jazz to square-as-can-be; for the last you can listen to the lovely "straight" phrases that come sailing from the St. James balcony, where yet another suitor has been waiting all night to scramble down a ladder, onto the stage, and then high up into the skeletal reaches of Ming Cho Lee's handsome monkey-bar set, a dove on his shoulder and a song in his long-parched throat.
He has also put the ground under the manic feet of one Jonelle Allen, a performer who was working Off Off Broadway just last spring and is now likely to wipe out the very floor of the St. James if they don't carry her off - which they have to do - sooner and sooner each night. Miss Allen quivers even when she is standing absolutely still; let one foot go and nothing is safe. She finishes her first number, in a deceptively prim white gown with yellow trim, with her back to us, shoulders still tingling, head in electrified profile. Announcing that she "wouldn't know a spiritual relationship if I tripped over it and broke my nose," she is into a Guare-MacDermot eruption ("Night Letter") that is spastic, triumphant, and loving all at once, hammer-locking her body about the various heroes in whom she is interested while they carol, in counterpoint, the highly syncopated exposition.
Miss Allen, who seems to have silver beads for eyelashes, is an untamed enchantress, possibly at her best when she is treading underfoot the sentiment of "Who Is Silvia?", refusing to be burdened with some poet's notion of her, refusing, for that matter, to be a "pin-up in anybody's locker room." The only thing I really missed from the summer production, apart from the fact that it was actually being played on a playground and so seemed in absolute, aimless harmony with a summer's night, is Miss Allen's final entrance, a moment in which she rose from the dark sky beyond the setting to move up and over its central platform until she had subsided on one knee, head turned away, very near us, a royal cat come to court - and a stars entrance, if ever I saw one. That's gone, but so's summer, and we must settle.
Clifton Davis speaks beautifully and sings well as the Valentine who is victim of his his best friend's libido, reading the remnants of Shakespeare in perfect measure as he prepares to take off on his gold-leaf, Victorian-scroll-work bicycle. Diana Davila, moving on jellied joints so that she always seems a pouting beat behind herself and working her lips as though they were restless from too little kissing, is new to the company and has an odd, funny attack on the role. It still wants some firming up, the impress of placid authority, but it will no doubt get that with playing. John Bottoms, Jose Perez, Frederic Warriner, Norman Matlock, and Alvin Lum (especially) are all fine too.
The evening is inventive but not too inventive. It knows when to use Shakespeare, when to put him on the telephone, when to doodle freely and musically on themes that might just as well belong to both of us. It's an improvisation with no malice in it, apparently effortless, unselfconscious in its casual, genial piracies. Above all, it is content to make do with the simplest of toys: those soap bubbles, fistfuls of confetti tossed in anybody's face and loftily, almost absentmindedly, brushed away. It has a kink of its own, a certain mirth of mind. That's enough.
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