The pink is the first thing you see entering the theater: It envelops the stage as if someone had used a lens to turn everything the precise color of a flamingo. It signals that this is not only an all-female production but that, most importantly, it is a production reclaiming femininity in theater. Yet while everyone on stage is a woman, you may end up forgetting that fact five minutes into the show (as I did). At the Jungle Theater, due to exquisite design and costuming and strong acting, Two Gentleman of Verona feels smarter than its text. It is a hilarious show with purpose, and it could be one of the Cities’ best this year.
The “male” characters wear leggings with ankles exposed and short hair. The women are given exquisite gowns. The men’s voices are low and powerful. The small, simple distinctions made between male and female characters are done so well that they stand for what they are: a bold directional choice. It’s a subtle statement: Gender does not need to hold a performance from its potential by traditional casting methods.
Two Gentleman of Verona is one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays by most accounts—it feels contrived and almost absurd. The play centers Proteus and Valentine, best friends who find they are falling in love with the same woman. The plot simply doesn’t have the refined tightness of Shakespeare’s later works. The paper-thin story line is on the verge of tearing at the climax when Proteus (Christiana Clark) attempts to force himself on Silvia (Maggie Chestovich). It’s a problematic moment, but it is also a testament to Clark’s dynamic performance that she is able to save the show by conveying Proteus’ absolute anguish at his actions in the final scene.
The casting is superb all around. A dog named Bear plays Crab and is a show stealer with every yawn and tail wag. Wendy Lahr is impossibly funny as Valentine’s servant, Speed. What could be a simplistic role becomes nuanced and hilarious through her energetic performance, well-timed jokes, and humorous facial expressions. Clark and Mo Perry are impeccable as Proteus and Valentine, respectively, creating a convincing bromance within the first few minutes that the entire rest of the show is built upon. Clark’s performance is bold and biting, while Perry is lovable as the morally upright Valentine.
The costuming is gorgeous, evocative of Elizabethan times with some contemporary choices. Klingaman stuns in each costume and gown. Against a simple backdrop of light pink paneling, the blue, gold, red and white costuming choices pop onstage. The double-tiered set, while well designed, is not utilized to its full potential, only being used on occasion.
Two Gentleman of Verona is a production that doesn’t allow itself to be taken too seriously—it is a comedy, after all. Quips and ad-libs fill the stage. Proteus gets a fist bump from an audience member while meandering through the aisles. It’s Shakespeare as Shakespeare should be, yet modern in the way it needs to be to connect to audiences and younger theatergoers.
It’s also subtle in its social cries. Young girls fill the stage as musicians and outlaws. The cast is among the most diverse that the Jungle has seen. With women still under-represented as actors and directors in Minneapolis and in theater in general, it is exhilarating to be able to see a Shakespeare production, or truly any play, where women are the beating heart of the production. As Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron said in their Tony Award acceptance speech last year, “For girls, you have to see it to be it.” And Two Gentleman of Verona is certain to be inspiring to the girls and young women I saw in attendance.
The Jungle Theater’s production isn’t perfect. But it doesn’t have to be: It is fun, wild, smart in its direction, and a subtle feminine push for social change.
The Two Gentleman of Verona
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Sarah Rasmussen
When: February 12 – March 27
Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
Featuring: Shá Cage, Maggie Chestovich, Christiana Clark, George Keller, Barbara Kingsley, Lenne Klingaman, Wendy Lehr, and Mo Perry
Tickets available at jungletheater.com