‘Two Gentleman from Verona’ opens season in a new direction

To change the time period, or not to change the time period? That is the question many producers of Shakespeare face, in some cases, several times a year. A traditional setting for the plays are either Elizabethan garb, or costumes tied to the time period presented in the play — ancient Greece, Scotland in the Middle Ages, etc. But since Willy Shakes died over 400 years ago, and he’s the most produced playwright ever, sometimes it’s fun to shake up things. Resetting the time through use of music and costume can yield results that are sublime, but frequently they are goofy, or downright stupid.

After two solid seasons setting each play more or less in its proper time, Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s Matt Wallace is taking his theater-goers in a new–for–them direction by setting the season opener, “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in the 1920s. This move indicates Wallace’s interest in creating an audience that comes back year after year, who can appreciate that he is trying something different — an audience that is hopefully learning to trust his instincts and artistry, and those of the rest of the creative team.

To make this time change just a little more challenging, Wallace has also added songs to his 1920s “Two Gents.” This isn’t just interstitial scene- change music, but full-on musical numbers, resurrecting a load of music from the 1920s. There’s full-out choreography in several scenes, and the dance moves from yesteryear, provided by Barbara Cullen, strike just the right balance between dance performance and dance-floor antics.

The story of “Two Gents” is pretty forgettable, and mostly interesting as being a sort of proto-Shakespeare. “Two Gents” is one of his earliest, and you can see many of the themes and ideas he’ll come to master in later plays, displayed in some form or another. There are four young lovers: Proteus (Jon Patrick O’Brien), and Valentine (Zachary Burrell) — the titular gents — and their respective loves, Julia (Maggie Lou Rader), and Sylvia (Arielle Leverett). They spend time being in love, and being thwarted. There is some time spent wandering out in the woods, some cross-dressing and some goofy servants and, at the end, several couples get married, while all the hijinks are forgiven.

Wallace’s time- jumped musical version mostly succeeds. Whatever time period we’re in, Wallace and company still exhibit a command of the language that leaves no lewd joke behind, and it revels in the poetry for which the Bard is famous.

The added music is lovely, spearheaded by musical director Chris Bryant, who frequently joins the cast on stage, playing the piano and singing. The musical numbers are gramophone hits, nearly 100 years old. The selection of songs fits neatly with the themes of the play, often adding a textual layer, and illuminating the scenes they follow.

The music also reveals hidden talents from some of Kentucky Shakes’ regular actors — the number of people who pick up instruments and start playing them is really wonderful, and so many people join in that I lost track after awhile. Louisville theatergoers won’t be surprised when the bumbling servants, Launce (Gregory Maupin), and Speed (Abigail Maupin), break into song, and accompany themselves on the ukulele. The duo’s musical skill is remembered by their fans from the days of their company, Le Petomane. But when saucy serving- woman, Lucretta (Megan Massie), pulls out a trumpet and gets in on the action, I did a double- take. Zachary Burrell’s Proteus also has some runaway numbers that are sure to set a couple hearts a fluttering out in the audience, as he plays love songs, and he accompanies himself on the same ukulele. As the hostess who runs the inn that houses Proteus in Milan, Marci Duncan crushes some jazz standards. And did someone pull out a violin at some point?

Seeing the regulars take on new roles is likewise exciting. It’s a natural side-effect of the kind of company building in which Wallace has been engaging. Though Kentucky Shakes has no official “company,” many of the actors keep coming back; probably because they are having a blast. Audience attendance numbers suggest that the audiences are also making plays in the park a yearly tradition. And ongoing patronage gives them the opportunity to appreciate fun new roles from some of their favorites. Take the stellar Jon Patrick O’Brien. The audience is used to him tackling heavy roles, like “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.” To see him let his hair down, and play a young jealous lover is refreshing. He sings a couple numbers too, though he leaves the instrumental work to others.

The drawback to all this musical fun is that it drags the pace of the show. On preview night, “Two Gents” ran just under two and half hours. That’s a perfectly reasonable run time for one of Shakespeare’s weightier works, but for a silly little comedy that doesn’t even have any magic or twins, it felt long. While the songs fit in very well, they didn’t ever move the plot forward, just reiterated what we had already seen.

Part of the problem is that Wallace, along with Kentucky Shakes frequent guest director, Amy Attaway, and dramaturg, Gregory Maupin, have spent the last two seasons showing Louisville just how clear and compelling Shakespeare’s words can be. They proved that we don’t need a time change, or explanatory musical numbers. So Wallace is in a way competing with his own success.

Still, despite the slight pace problems, it’s a very enjoyable evening, and a great start to the season. Maybe Shakespeare doesn’t need to be updated, but sometimes it’s fun to see him sing songs and wear funny clothes.