A Review of Macbeth


by Matthew Falduto
Photos by S. Benjamin Farrar

Iowa City – I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating – there is something magical about enjoying theatre in the outdoors, with chirping birds and a gentle breeze adding to the experience. The sun sets as the play progresses, which is perfectly appropriate for a tragedy like Macbeth, which was presented by Riverside Theatre on the festival stage in City Park last weekend. Continue reading

Riverside Returns to the Park


Iowa City – After taking their summer festival indoors last year, Riverside Theatre is returning to the Festival Stage in Lower City Park to present two shows in repertory this month: Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre and The Fair Maid of the West by Thomas Heywood. Pericles opens June 17 and Fair Maid opens June 24. Continue reading

Thursday Theatre Talk at Riverside

Iowa City – “Riverside Theatre presents two free events, a Thursday Theatre Talk and an open reading, to introduce their summer season Riverside Theatre in the Park plays, Shakespeare’s great drama HAMLET and Sheridan’s hilarious 18th century comedy, THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL.

On May 16 at 5:30PM participate in a Thursday Theatre Talk. Learn about the plays and share questions with the host, Shakespearean scholar Miriam Gilbert, and the directors. Discuss Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Sheridan’s The School for Scandal—two classic and famous plays. One is perhaps the best-known of Shakespeare’s tragedies, while Sheridan’s generously witty satire is a brilliant comedy of manners. What makes these plays speak to us today? What problems do they raise for contemporary audiences? What draws directors and actors to these classics? Kristin Horton joins us from New York to direct HAMLET. Theodore Swetz, head of acting at the University of Missouri-KC, MFA program, directs THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL.

Friday, May 17 at 7:00PM enjoy an open reading of THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL script. The cast of the show will read through the script and afterwards audience members can share their reactions with the actors and director, helping to shape the production. The play is a hilarious 18th century English satire that pokes fun at an eccentric aristocratic social circle and their snooty culture of gossip and extravagance.

Both events take place at Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert Street and are free and open to the public. No tickets are necessary. For more information call 319-338-7672 or visit riversidetheatre.org

Riverside Theatre in the Park runs from June 14 – July 7 at Lower City Park in Iowa City. Tickets and event information available by phone, 319-338-7672, or online at riversidetheatre.org.”

(Source: Riverside Press Release)

The Merchant of Venice Asks the Hard Questions

By James E. Trainor III

Eric Damon Smith (L) as Bassanio and John William Watkins (R) as Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Bob Goodfellow.

Iowa City – Comedy is cruel. Even in its tamest forms it gently chides us, poking fun at our faults and mocking at our solemnity. From the classic Commedia del’arte to the modern Saturday Night Live skit, it seems the comedian’s mode is similar to that of a schoolyard bully. Every joke needs a butt, every comic bit needs a victim.

Shylock of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a broadly-drawn comic character who is very alien to our modern sensibilities. An angry, stingy, moneylender (most likely influenced by Pantalone of the Commedia del’arte) who hates Christians for their faith alone, he quite simply makes us uncomfortable. He is a historical reminder of the antisemitism that has plagued Europe for centuries, and at the same time the perfect symbol for the ostracized “other.”

It is likely that a lot of the more exaggerated aspects of the character were originally played for laughs; in Shakespeare’s time, when things were less naturalistic, Shylock was an acceptable scapegoat, an angry curmudgeon who stands outside society, his religion something of an exotic oddity that needs to be corrected.

Such are the mechanics of comedy, and usually it’s okay. We’re not concerned when Benedick disavows his misogyny, though the task requires a bit of playful trickery. When Shylock is “cured” of his Jewishness, however, it strikes right at the heart of our pluralistic society, which highly values religious freedom.

The problem of Shylock, then, in the American theatre with its strong naturalist tradition, is something that must be dealt with. Our methods of getting at character require creating whole people with real emotional needs, not hook-nosed devils to be derided throughout the evening. A Shylock with real emotional needs, however, is a very risky proposition, as the character is destined to be ground up and deprived of his humanity by the action of the play — which is, after all, a comedy. Riverside’s production, directed by Kristin Horton, faces this challenge head-on, and on the way does a wonderful job highlighting some of the interesting — and distressing — themes contained therein.

Horton has a history of sinking her teeth into much of Shakespeare’s meatier work — in recent years she has directed such “problem” plays as Measure for Measure and The Taming of the Shrew for Riverside Theatre. She approaches these plays with a very honest, exploratory tone, keen on asking the hard questions inherent in these fine but problematic pieces of work. Merchant has long been considered the third rail of Shakespearean theatre, for the harsh antisemitism expressed by the characters and for the shocking scene in which Shylock, quite justly stripped of his revenge, is systematically humiliated, forced to consent to his daughter’s sudden wedding and give up his religious identity in one fell swoop.

This scene is performed masterfully by Riverside’s ensemble. Shylock (Theodore Swetz) is very sympathetic here, arguing quite convincingly for his right to his revenge. He points out the hypocrisy of a society that keeps men as slaves but pleads mercy of a man who has bought flesh, and of a court that risks creating social and economic chaos by refusing to respect its own laws. Antonio (Tim Budd), ostensibly willing to sacrifice his life with Christian humility but stubborn as a mule when pressed, only seems to feed Shylock’s anger. Gratiano (John William Watkins) is excessively cruel, which goes a long way towards making Shylock more sympathetic. Even Portia (Kelly Gibson), who is quite likeable in this production, has a difficult time talking him down. Her “the quality of mercy is not strained” speech, very logical and practical here, is undersold and not at all preachy. She acknowledges that Shylock has all the power, but calmly and simply repeats the refrain common to the comic structure, cautioning Shylock to be reasonable, reminding him that he has gone too far.

On this point hinges the difference between Merchant the comic love story and Merchant the tragic tale of social injustice. Because when Shylock is played with such wonderful humanity and honest passion, his rants about daughters and ducats cease to be merely comic fodder for the groundlings, and his boundless rage becomes a true tragic flaw in the Aristotelian sense. In Shakespeare’s Venice, Pantalone has grown too big for his britches and he cannot simply be brought back into the fold of society through a few silly tricks; he must be destroyed, as surely as Oedipus or Hamlet must be destroyed.

Horton, Swetz, Gibson, and the entire company understand this point quite well, and Shylock’s humiliation is very effective and quite sobering. When Portia cannot convince Shylock with reason, she turns the power of the law against him, proclaiming him doomed for seeking the life of a Christian (though she, not actually being a lawyer, has no authority to do so), and giving the Duke (Ron Clark) an opportunity to overturn the sentence and showcase his Christian charity (though a Christian society with such blatantly discriminatory laws is not very charitable). To top off this self-righteous show of justice, Anthony agrees to return half his property to him (the other half must go to his disobedient daughter)… if Shylock agrees to convert to Christianity. On this suggestion Portia removes Shylock’s yarmulke, exposing his bare skull to the heavens and leaving him standing humiliated, horrified, and deeply hurt. Swetz leaves the stage defeated; there is nothing more to be said.

In the light of this powerfully staged climax, the rest of the play reads more like an uncomfortable tragedy or a biting satire than a light-hearted love comedy. Bits that should be hilarious, like Jim Van Valen’s engaging clowning as Lancelet, are tainted by the constant almost casual abuse that is heaped upon Shylock. Jessica (Eva Louise Balistrieri), who by the structure of the play should be a poor maiden imprisoned by a cruel father, comes off as ungrateful and petulant, robbing her father and running away not for love, but for the mere pleasure of doing so. Even Portia, who is witty and delightful despite the questionable morality of some of her actions, seems compelled to toss racist remarks after her suitors. This is a Venice filled with vain and vicious people, each trying to grab a piece of the pie in this quickly changing society, where there is no trust in love without a barrage of tests, no partnership in business without deadly deals.

Which is quite a great deal more intriguing than some fluff about a lovesick goofball, some metal casks, and a miserly Jew.

It must be pointed out that while I found virtually all of these characters quite distasteful (with the exception of Portia and Shylock), this is by no means a failing of the acting or direction. On the contrary, I think the company made very bold choices in enmeshing themselves in the very problematic world of these people, and they have a very honest approach to the stakes the players hold in the story and the reasons they behave in the way they do. “No one is right in this play,” Horton says during a post-show talkback. “Everybody’s implicated.” It’s a very striking vision and it hits right at the reason we still do the play despite the obvious ways in which it’s difficult to perform in 21st-Century America: it asks hard questions that are still relevant to society: questions about trust, mercy, economic justice, racism, sexism, and class warfare. The acting is carefully considered and very natural, and everyone in the company does a fabulous job of inhabiting this world.

Budd and Swetz work quite well together; they create a very intimate hostile environment every time they share the stage. They each seem, at times, to want to find a way out of this bitter vendetta, but neither will budge and we get the sense that their history is long and complicated and has to do with a lot more than religion. Budd displays Antonio’s distaste for Shylock — and his zeal for combating his economic practices — with a quiet, watchful presence, and his silence speaks volumes beyond the text he is given. Swetz uses Shylock’s more convincing speeches to great effect, and gracefully glosses some of the jokes and gags that seem to be lifted straight from the mouth of Pantalone.

Kelly Gibson is extremely solid as Portia. She has some very fun and clever constructions in the earlier scenes, where she mocks her suitors, and these are delivered precisely and with a wealth of humor. Kalen Harriman does a great job prodding her on as Nerissa. During the trial of the caskets, her performance is quite nuanced: we see a Portia who is straining under her suffering, but suffering constantly nonetheless, always determined to stand by her father’s wishes. In short, she is the exact opposite of Jessica, who despises her father and is jumping out the window almost as soon as we see her. In the later scenes, Gibson’s objective work is quite deft; she swallows her clear distaste for Shylock and her fear at being discovered in her disguise and pushes forward to find a solution to the madness she had been drawn into. There aren’t a lot of characters to root for in this play, and Portia, though far from perfect, is probably the closest to being anything like a moral center.

Eric Damon Smith’s Bassanio is quite refreshing. He spends a lot more energy fawning over Portia that scowling at Shylock, and his lovesick sighs, though a bit excessive, are sweet. Smith’s vocal talent is apparent, and Shakespeare’s words flow quite naturally and conversationally out of his mouth.

Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s scenic design, with props by Steve Rosse, is quite effective in the trial of the casks scene. This is a lovely device, and when staged well, it takes on mythic proportions. The trick of the riddle — Portia’s suitor being asked to “hazard all” on the lead casket — feeds well into the other themes of the play. A particularly revealing moment comes when Bassanio’s gifts are brought on stage, bolts of fabric that come out of a large chest that seems downright gaudy when upstaged by the simple gold, silver and lead caskets of the famous riddle. The gesture highlights Bassanio’s recklessness quite well: Portia is the one woman in the world who clearly cannot be bought by flashy gifts. In order to win her, he needs not borrow a single ducat, but only be the man humble and faithful enough to solve her father’s riddle. But in his eagerness to please, he has asked Antonio for money to court her, which creates the debt to Shylock that sets the entire plot in motion. A very precarious house of cards is built upon Portia and Bassanio’s rocky romance, especially as both Bassanio and Gratiano are so quick to belittle their wives when they think they are alone among men. The contrast between the fairy-tale courtship that takes place at Belmont and the harsh economic realities of Venice brings up a lot of intriguing questions about love, marriage, and social contracts in general, and the connections between the subplots of the play are very clear in this production.

Anton Chekhov said that the job of the artist is not to solve problems for his or her audience, but simply to state them correctly. There are a great deal of questions large and small in Merchant, and if they haven’t been answered in the past four hundred years they’re not likely to be answered in the next. What is clear, however, is that Riverside Theatre has made a fine effort at stating these problems correctly.

The Merchant of Venice, with support from a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, is offering a talkback following every performance. I highly recommend you go see this intriguing play, and stay afterward to discuss the material with the talented and passionate artists involved. The Merchant of Venice runs through July 7, in repertory with As You Like It, at Lower City Park in Iowa City. Tickets begin at $27, with discounts for students and seniors.

As You Like It Is Outrageous and Insightful

Ryland Thomas as Orlando and Kalen Harriman as Rosalind in As You Like It. Photo by Bob Goodfellow.

By James E. Trainor III

Iowa City – As You Like It is a delightful piece with many amusing devices, clever exchanges and hilarious set pieces. Its principals are bold and witty, and its clowns are among the most memorable of the entire canon. In fact, it’s my personal favorite Shakespeare comedy. However, it’s also a somewhat difficult play, as translation to the stage can be rather slippery. The issue is one of tone: what starts off as a bristling melodrama reveals itself to be, at turns, a refreshing pastoral and a satirical examination of gender politics, the nature of repentance, and the duality of humankind. What’s rolling along as a slightly bawdy romp can suddenly become powerfully introspective, and the sheer number of one-hundred-eighty degree character turns and improbable coincidences can be perplexing to producing companies as well as audiences.

It’s always intriguing to see such a play produced, to see how the director and the actors will face such challenges. Director Theodore Swetz has done a marvelous job with this show, incorporating the disparate elements into a cohesive whole, exploring the intriguing moral and philosophical questions it proposes, and guiding Riverside’s talented troupe through a number of simply hysterical bits of comedy.

Swetz focuses on the transformative aspect of the forest of Arden, the way it frees people up to be what they want to be. Rosalind (Kalen Harriman) is clever — downright witty — courageous and righteous at the court of Frederick, but those virtues quickly raise the ire of the tyrannous Duke, and she must make her own way in the world. The moment we see her step into the forest, she is an entirely different person, and not just because she is wearing man’s clothes. Her heart, before very heavy at the way the world has oppressed her, suddenly releases and she responds to the beautiful world around her with delight. Harriman establishes this efficiently with a sweeping look around the stage and a newly confident gait. Sean Ketchum Johnson’s set design and Genevieve V. Beller’s costumes set up the divide between the two worlds quite well. Swetz’s vision ties it all together.

“I believe we all need a little bit of ‘Arden’ in our lives,” he writes in his director’s notes. “A place to go and rethink… a place to escape to — and simplify your life in order to gain wisdom.” For Swetz, As You Like It is about the twin worlds of human society and nature, and the uniquely human ability to completely reinvent oneself when given some time alone to think. Everything seems a little better with after a breath of fresh air and a joyful tune. The banished Duke (Ron Clark) and his followers, far from brooding over their misfortunes, are playing at Robin Hood, creating an utopian society founded on pacifism and brotherhood. Orlando (Ryland Thomas) is a persecuted prisoner at court, but in the woods he is a young man in love and a giddy poet. And Rosalind’s affection for Orlando, before a burden, is now an absolute delight, and she is an excellent position to get to know him, safe behind the identity she has created for herself.

Harriman is excellent as Rosalind. It’s fun to witness her clever ploys, hear her sharp tongue at wordplay, and watch her resist the urge to swoon in the presence of her love (only to roll about on the stage and squeal with glee as soon as he is gone). These two quite different modes of Rosalind — subtle and crafty but light-hearted and nearly overwhelmed by the force of her love — seem entirely consistent within Harriman’s portrayal.

When she counsels Orlando to “pretend” that she, who is disguised as Ganymede, is actually Rosalind, so that Ganymede can dissuade Orlando from loving by exposing him to the faults of women, we have a premise rich with comic promise. But Thomas’ earnestness and and Harriman’s barely-contained tension tell the other side of the story: the game that Orlando and Rosalind play is actually a very serious one.

“Make doors on a woman’s wit and it will out at the casement,” Rosalind tells Orlando. Ostensibly Ganymede is playing the misogynist here, lambasting the infidelity of woman, but when Rosalind speaks it the line takes on another meaning: she, a woman, though smarter than her male protectors, is often kept silent by them. Only through this comic charade can she truly say the very important things that need to be said. When she pretends to chide Orlando for his fickleness, or lampoon her own faults, she’s actually testing the waters in a way that has very high emotional stakes. Shakespeare often puts his more intellectual lovers through trials like these — Beatrice and Benedick spar viciously and Petruccio’s treatment of Kate is difficult for our modern sensibilities to stomach — and we know that the lovers will be the better for it because they’ve moved past the love-as-poetry stage into something truly interpersonal and emotionally challenging. The setup in As You Like It is particularly ingenious: the lovers, under the increasingly shaky pretense that they’re not actually talking to each other, are able to bear their souls with complete candor. It is at once a hilarious piece of farce and a gripping love scene, cleverly written, carefully directed, and acted with energy and honesty.

Eva Louise Balistrieri, who plays Celia, is particularly good in these scenes. She stands in for the audience’s growing amusement and disbelief as Rosalind’s scheems get more and more out of hand, but at the same time she’s a caring confidante to her friend. Balistrieri is a generous scene partner, responding warmly to Harriman, and her big, funny reactions to the main action add volumes to each scene.

Ryland Thomas is very likable as Orlando. He starts the show with a bang, energetically setting the stage for his rivalry with Oliver (Eric Damon Smith). He and Harriman have great chemistry; they’re equally as good at squaring off in witty banter as they are at swooning over each other. Thomas’ Orlando is courageous and constant; he won’t be shaken by Rosalind’s games and it’s easy to root for him.

There are plenty of other excellent performances in this production of As You Like It. Tim Budd is quite entertaining as Touchstone, the fool who follows Rosalind and Celia to the forest. He’s relentlessly clever and very quick with a punchline; his jolly spirit is contagious. An equally effective performance comes from Jim Van Valen, who plays the melancholy Jacques. Van Valen really gets to the heart of this character, a keen seeker with a restless mind. His “all the world’s a stage” speech is beautiful and thought-provoking, and the tone of Jacques’ playful daydreaming is so endearing that we feel he’s earned it when he trades his jacket for Touchstone’s coat of motley.

Silvius (F. Tyler Burnet) and Phoebe (Kelly Gibson) are yet two more well-beloved characters from this comedy. Burnet’s Silvius, completely hopeless in his pursuit of Phoebe, is absolutely adorable. His vocal and physical work strikes just the right tone, and he is pitiful without ever being completely pathetic. Gibson is simply hilarious as Phoebe, both in opposition to Burnet (her attempt to literally strike Silvius dead with her eyes is a great bit of physical comedy), and in her relentless leaping at Harriman.

Laugh-out-loud farce, introspective clowns, timeless love stories: just when you thought this show couldn’t have anything more, it also has music. The songs that are sung live during the show are really lovely; John Mistler’s compositions are beautiful and the company does them justice, particularly Jonathan Bulter-Duplessis and Elyse Edelman. The scoring is good in places as well — particularly to set the mood as the principals flee Frederick’s court — but it seemed unnecessary when used to signify the “love at first sight” moments. For Celia and Oliver, who have very little stage time to build a relationship, something is probably needed, but it feels a bit melodramatic when used for Rosalind and Orlando. That isn’t too distracting though, as this play seems to wind through a variety of tones as it progresses.

That versatility of style makes for a very challenging play, and Swetz’s direction pulls it off fantastically. There are three moments near the end of As You Like It that have always stood out to me as peculiar and improbable, but they all flow naturally out of Swetz’s passionate, thoughtful approach. The first is Oliver’s offstage transformation, which consists of him forgiving his brother after Orlando saves him from first a snake, then a lioness. Eric Damon Smith tells this odd tale well and his reformed Oliver is so honest and kind-hearted, in contrast to the melodramatic villain of the first act, that Smith’s performance helps us believe in the power of kindness and forgiveness to change people for the better.

Another difficult moment is the entrance of Hera (Jody Hovland), the goddess of marriage, in the final scene. Hera appears to herald Rosalind’s entrance on what is to be her wedding day; she is to be reunited with her father and married to Orlando. Critics have dismissed this as a deus ex machina, a cynical plot device necessary to wrap up all the threads of Rosalind’s plan. When Hovland appears in full regalia, however, it doesn’t seem out of place at all — her speeches do no more than reinforce what Rosalind has already said, and the magical moment actually flows organically out of Touchstone’s ironic speech about how to civilly settle disputes at court with a well-placed “if.”

Duke Frederick’s reformation, which also happens offstage, is another challenging moment. This is done light-heartedly, with a bit of winking at the audience, but the theme of reconciliation and second chances has been explored so thoroughly and so thoughtfully by the production that we’re able to forgive Shakespeare one last improbable plot point. Ron Clark is double-cast as both Dukes, and the stark contrast between the over-the-top villainy of Frederick and the wise, friendly leadership of his older brother lets us see what could be. It’s almost as if people who come into the forest are able to shed their court identities, becoming their true selves in the absence of any need for pretense.

These moments, which stood out to me as bizarre and distracting when I first read As You Like It, revealed to me their deeper meanings in Swetz’s production. I came away from the show with a renewed appreciation for my favorite Shakespearean comedy. I highly recommend you go see this production: it’s funny, it’s clever, and it stands as a celebration of the spirit of self-determination.

As You Like It runs through July 8, in repertory with The Merchant of Venice. Performances are at Lower City Park in Iowa City. Tickets are $17-39.

As You Like It Opens June 15

Ryland Thomas as Orlando and Kalen Harriman as Rosalind in As You Like It. Photo by Bob Goodfellow.

Riverside – Riverside Theatre in the Park begins this Friday with Shakespeare’s As You Like It, directed by Theodore Swetz.

As You Like It, set in the forest of Arden, is a pastoral comedy of gender-bending and confusion of identity. Kalen Harriman plays Rosalind, Jim Van Valen plays Jaques, and Tim Budd plays Touchstone.

As You Like It runs through July 8, in repertory with The Merchant of Venice. Performances are at Lower City Park in Iowa City. Tickets are $17-39.

Apprentice Auditions for Riverside Shakespeare Festival

Riverside Theatre – Auditions and interviews for Riverside’s 2012 Shakespeare Festival apprentice company will be held February 4. Full-time apprenticeships are open to undergraduate, graduate students or others seeking a professional experience in the areas of acting, directing and stage management. Call Riverside at 319.338.7672 to set up an audition or interview.

The apprentice program contracts from May 15 – July 9 as Riverside rehearses and produces As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice in repertory. The program includes a $75/week stipend, housing for non-local interns, and weekly master classes. More information here.

Love, and a Bit With a Dog

by James E. Trainor III

The 1998 film Shakespeare in Love has a bit of fun at Two Gentlemen of Verona‘s expense. Shakespeare, trying desperately to capture the essence of true love onstage, cringes as his audience pays more attention to the dog Crab than to his love story. Henslowe, ever the practical showman, is encouraging:

“You see? Comedy. Love, and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want.”

Such is the play’s reputation in modern pop culture. Perhaps for this reason it is not often performed; the text is one of Shakespeare’s earliest and presents a number of challenges. When done with passion by skilled professional actors, however, the piece proves to be more than just fluff.

The text has some problems that are difficult for a company to grapple with. Shakespeare was still cutting his teeth, and the structure is not as clean as some of his later works. Some characters make sudden shifts with no clear motivation. Others stand awkwardly silent onstage for long exchanges of witty banter between the principles. The servant Launce and his dog Crab, so beloved of audiences, seem shoehorned into the plot at the last minute. Fortunately, with some excellent acting and some pragmatic staging, Riverside’s production deals well with these challenges.

Cristina Panfilio is Julia, who is engaged to Proteus. Proteus soon finds himself in love with Valentine’s fiancee, however, and Julia must fly to his side in disguise. As with her later counterparts Rosalind and Viola, this is a fun device that spurs on many comic moments. Unlike them, however, Julia is not necessarily easy to like. The trouble is, as written, she’s a little pathetic. She’s head-over-heels in love with Proteus, who, based on his actions during the play, does not deserve her attention. The minute he gets to Milan he throws himself at Sylvia, disowning his friend and burning every bridge he can just to get a shot at a woman who can’t stand the sight of him. He even goes so far as to give “Sebastian” (really Julia in disguise) Julia’s ring to give to Sylvia! It’s a wonder she doesn’t throw the ring back at him and head back to Verona to find a slightly more reliable partner.

The play is about constancy, though, and Julia will not back down in her pursuit of her true love, no matter how ridiculous he becomes. Panfilio plays this note with characteristic charm and pointed passion. The result is a Julia that is very silly and excitable (she is so giddy over Proteus at the beginning that she can hardly receive his letter with composure), yet courageous and constant when occasion demands.

Proteus, played here with inexhaustible energy by Zachary Andrews, is as committed to his inconstancy as Julia is to her constancy. His very name suggests he is ever-changing. He is structurally the protagonist of the piece, but his behavior is so dishonest and outrageous that it’s hard to like him. We long to see him get his comeuppance but he never, strictly speaking, does. He goes as far as to attempt to rape Sylvia, and when Valentine stops him, offers a brief five-line apology and is instantly forgiven.

It’s hard to go along with Proteus’ journey under these circumstances, but of course some of this must be forgiven as the growing pains of the young playwright. The rape scene is a step too far for a romantic comedy, and though Ron Clark’s direction allows a long and comic fight scene to take the edge off, the conclusion of the play is still a bit awkward. Nevertheless, Proteus’s descent into reckless abandon is entertaining to watch, and Andrews is very engaging as he drives the action relentless onward.

Valentine is played by Christopher Peltier, who is a very solid and grounded comic actor. He keeps pace with his clever servant Speed (Peter Eli Johnson) and is lovable in a farcical scene with the Duke (Jim Van Valen). Valentine, though he does go a bit over the top in his love for Sylvia, is much more likable than Proteus, and Peltier’s consistent scene work is a joy to watch.

Kelly Rebecca Gibson plays Sylvia. Though she turns it around by the end, she seems a bit uneven in her first scene. With Proteus, she is oversexed in a manner that doesn’t seem as natural coming from her as from some of the more comic roles. She doesn’t quite seem as experienced as the other three leads, but she redeems it by playing the final scenes with creativity and honest intensity. Sylvia is a difficult role to play, of course, partly because Shakespeare doesn’t give her enough stage time with Valentine to make the relationship believable. She is mainly notable in her moral character, her willingness to listen to Proteus and refuse him again and again.

The production has some fairly significant pacing issues, and again, it’s hard to tell whether this is the text or the direction. One directorial choice that was unnecessary was the use of signs to explain the location to the audience. This isn’t really needed in Shakespeare, especially in such a versatile space as the Festival Stage; a different bench for Julia’s house and the Duke’s palace will suffice. The signs were sometimes funny, but more often than not just slowed things down.

Another problem altogether is Launce. Launce, as noted, doesn’t seem to fit into the plot very well. His interpretation by Patrick DuLaney is extremely successful in its own right, but the long monologues and bits of stage business with the dog Crab (played by noted “Pit Bull Ambassador” Big Red) stick out like a sore thumb in most cases. The farce is turned up to eleven, and suddenly we stop the plot for a bit of stand-up. DuLaney is quite good in the more active scenes, however, and the dialogue with Speed is quite funny (though the patter could be a bit snappier).

The clowns in the piece turn out to be an intriguing thematic aspect. Julia’s servant Lucetta (Jody Hovland) and Valentine’s servant Speed ridicule and criticize their social betters quite freely. They are much more grounded than their masters, and it is clear that they are needed for the nobles’ self-awareness. They do not need to repress their passions and thus are in better control of them. Launce, despite his bumbling animal nature, is shown quite clearly to be Proteus’s moral superior when he explains how often he himself has taken the punishment for his dog’s misdeeds. “How many masters would do this for his servant?” (To punctuate the point, in case we missed it, Proteus arrives shortly and beats Launce.)

The bandits in the forest (played by a great ensemble consisting of Chad Bay, Samuel Alexander Hawkins, Jody Hovland, Zoe Sigman, and Alex Shockley) are entertaining and engaging, though the fight scenes seem to drag on a bit long. There is an interesting device here that echoes the interchange of social class elsewhere in the play: these bandits are actually gentlemen who, exiled for crimes, resorted to crime. Far from frightening, they’re actually lovable and friendly. All these noble savages need is the Duke’s pardon to make them gentlemen again.

It is in the forest that Valentine, appointed ruler of these bandits, is able to come back to himself and learn to love a little less ridiculously. The theme is a bit underdeveloped, but it is clear that Shakespeare is exploring the type of duality that will fascinate him in later works.

Many of the incidents and rhetorical devices used in The Two Gentlemen of Verona will appear transformed but still recognizable in later plays. When Helena encourages Demetrius to treat her like a dog in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, she is echoing Proteus’s plea to Sylvia. When Romeo complains that banishment is really a type of death in Romeo and Juliet, he is essentially repeating Valentine’s complaint. Though the results tend to be clumsy, Two Gentlemen is a clear example of Shakespeare’s mastery of the form gaining momentum.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona runs through July 10th in repertory with Ah, Wilderness! at the Riverside Festival Stage in Lower City Park in Iowa City. Tickets can be purchased by calling Riverside’s box office at 319.338.7672. More information here.