Irreverence is occasionally a virtue much to be admired. The New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater is currently doing Shakespeare a power of good and turning Central Park into a place of celebration with its new production of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." It is jeu d'espirit, a bardjc spree, a midsummer night's jest, a merriment of lovers, a gallimaufry of styles and a gas. It takes off.
For years Joseph Papp, Bernard Gersten and all who sailed with them have done gloriously right by Shakespeare. Now they have done gloriously wrong. They are presenting this tedious little play by Shakespeare and they have transformed it into a totally endearing New York pop musical. I adored it. It needs a lot of work before it finally reaches the Broadway billet it is presumably destined for, but it works up to a tremendous climax already, and the first-night audience at the Delacorte Theater on Tuesday night was ecstatic.
So what is new and what is so New York about "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"? Well, the Shakespeare Festival has had it adapted by John Guare and Mel Shapiro, and given it music by Galt MacDermot and lyrics by Mr. Guare. The result is a swift and sweet expose of life, love, Shakespeare and New York City.
In "The Two Gentlemen." Shakespeare is, of course, mocking romantic love, and suggesting that self-interest also has its role to play, and that love itself is more than the sometimes almost cynically stylized metaphor of the lover's sigh. Petrarchian sonnets had their charm as art, but their limitations as life. Mr. Guare and Mr. Shapiro have taken Mr. Shakespeare's point most abundantly, and are now ramming it home at Central PArk.
Two friends fall in love with two women - but so differently. The romantic, the ardent Proteus, proves the cheat and the fraud, while the less fancified lover, Valentine, proves truer to his course.
A lot of Shakespearean text is left, and even more of the Shakespearean spirit. But this is not a production of Shakespeare's play as such (and as such, thank God!) and interpretation of Shakespeare's views of love and sexuality. Nothing is intellectually better in the piece then when Shakespeare is drooling - appropriately of his time but I suspect with immortal self-consciousness - for that perfectly wretched Silvia that all the swains apparently commended - and then Mr. Guare counterattacks with splendid directness.
He has Silvia spiritedly demand to be judged for herself, not for what people think she is - in a fine number she spits out called "Love Me". The message is love me for what I am, not for what you want me to be, and it makes different sense from anything Silvia's swains could ever have imagined.
The adaptation is funny and beautiful, and Mr. Guare's lyrics merge mockingly with Shakespeare's lines, and yet also with a kind of friendship. Mr. Guare has never heard of the word anachronism, and neither had Mr. Shakespeare.
Mr. MacDermot's music is less hirsute than his score for "Hair". It gets better and better as the evening flies on, but it needs another three or four really good numbers for sustained success. The opening is very slow, and the show does take a dangerous lost few minutes to gain momentum.
And suddenly here was my personal problem. Listening to the music, the lyrics, the entire concept, I suddenly felt as if I were a New York interloper of the Philadelphia opening of a Broadway-bound musical. A funny thing had happened to me on the way to the Forum.
The piece looks a little thrown together, like a random basketful of cherries. But what it has, apart from much of the gutsiness of Mr. Guare and Mr. MacDermot, is this great feeling for the city of New York, especially its black and Puerto Rican elements. Its lovely Julia wails into Spanish at the drop of a heartthrob, and black is very beautifully beautiful.
Mr. Shapiro's staging helped as ever by the Shakespeare Festival stalwarts Ming Cho Lee and Theoni V. Aldredge, both looking after decorative matters, is flip, cheerful and four weeks of rehearsal time short of polished. The performances were fun - lighthearted and zesty.
The four lovers, Jonelle Allen, Carla Pinza, Clifton Davis and Raul Julia, could not have been better. All four swept the play with all its silliness into a summer night of bliss. They all seemed to be having such a very good and popcorn time of it. They were natural, unaffected and Shakespearean.
The Shakespeare Festival has reached a happy point now where it is permitted liberties. And the company romped and frolicked with the quiet distinction of an off-duty judge. Jerry Stiller was fine and sweetly downbeat as Launce - a character that Shakespeare always arranged to be upstaged by a dog, presumably out of pure hatred for the clown who first played the role. I also much appreciated Alix Elias as Lucetta, Jose Perez as Speed, Alvin Lum as Eglamour and Frederic Warriner, in one tremendous drunken fall, as the innkeeper who clearly believes that the best way to keep an inn is to drink it.
A lovely night. Thank you Mr. Papp, William Shakespeare, Mr. MacDermot, Mr. Shapiro, Mr. Guare and everyone else. Thank you even Mayor Lindsay. They are giving out folly for nothing in Central Park. Go at once - but go carefully.
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