Shakespeare's 'Two Gentlemen,' but with tanning lotion and texting

Seattle Shakespeare Company breathes fresh air into a classic comedy
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Russ as Crab and Chris Ensweiler as Lance in 'Gentlemen'

Seattle Shakespeare Company breathes fresh air into a classic comedy

Seattle Shakespeare Company is now showing an early comedy of the immortal Bard that, thanks to saucy staging by Marcus Goodwin, may best be described as The Two Gentledudes of Santa Verona. With this production the company has again managed — not with powerful acting, unusual textual sensitivity or brilliant re-interpretation, but through insouciant exuberance — to provide a satisfying evening'ꀙs entertainment.

Well-designed and less callow than the recent Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, this production still unapologetically locates itself on Shakespeare'ꀙs airier side. In Club Verona, where he lays his scene, Goodwin gives us palm trees, tanning lotion and a spot of hip hop. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare'ꀙs most traditional works, with a comedic structure right out of the antique Roman tradition: the pair of young couples with sassy servants, obstructive fathers, an unwanted suitor. While the play has many clever lines and scenes, it can seem a bit stale; it benefits from the fresh air of Goodwin'ꀙs beachfront.

According to essayist and critic George Steiner, any modern-dress production 'ꀜargues a trope of eternal relevance'ꀝ: By setting an old play in a new time we assert the script'ꀙs freedom from the cultural context out of which it hatched. Yet anachronisms baked into a script can contradict this claim of relevance. In Gentlemen, the servants seem out of place: the clever use of text messages and cellphone cameras obviate the servants'ꀙ role as message-bearers, and they aren'ꀙt given other duties to illustrate their utility. Hispanic servants with feather dusters and lawn shears might have fit better into this groovy Verona-on-the-Pacific. But it seems the Elizabethan companies didn'ꀙt fret over historical mish-mash, so perhaps it'ꀙs in the spirit of the original that we see a tycoon who loses his power tie, a Russian mobster in sweats and a gang-banger brandishing a kitchen fork, all declaiming in pentameters.

It'ꀙs quite amusing until a fine comedic duo appears, who coax us from amusement into delight. Russ — an aged and limping straight man without lines but with an active tongue — nearly steals the show each time this pair appears. But his partner Chris Ensweiler, in the Harlequin-style character of Lance, upstages him and proves that our culture'ꀙs still robust enough to generate new archetypes. Of particular note is his new definition for the word 'ꀜstaff.'ꀝ

Seattle Shakespeare Company productions are built for spectators, not an audience. Much of the dialogue is hasty and the diction muddy. The actors'ꀙ voices can be overloud for the small theater. Subtleties of interpretation are lost, and at times the action contradicts the text. But they offer broad comedy, high spirits, a quick pace, clever turns in the staging, a readiness to engage with the audience, and a fundamental appreciation that performing Shakespeare shouldn'ꀙt be too serious an undertaking.

If you go: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Seattle Shakespeare Company, Thursdays-Sundays through April 11, Center House Theatre, Seattle Center.


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