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‘Gentlemen’ Prefers Bonds With Actors

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Because few things in theater are better than Shakespeare played with energy, imagination and passion, it follows that few things are worse than Shakespeare played like a flat tire.

Stylish renderings of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona"--the Bard’s most flawed and problematic comedy--can help coast over the work’s impossible plot and character defects. But South Orange County Community Theatre’s outdoor staging quickly rumbles to the side of the road and never revives. (The British commonly refer to it as “a problem play” the way they refer to Northern Ireland strife as “the Troubles.”)

Director Patrick Brien’s weak cast and paltry staging--the group’s ninth annual summer edition of Shakespeare is set in the new and improved setting of the Town Center Park (adjacent to the company’s Camino Real Playhouse theater)--merely underscore the play’s faults.

It’s clear from the opening scene: Proteus--pining for Julia (Samantha Berglund)--and Valentine--eager for adventure in the big city of Milan--should have big-time chemistry.

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Yet here Brien’s impassioned Proteus and William Tanner IV’s grating, archly acted Valentine seem to start out in different plays. It’s not surprising when they turn enemies; they never seem to be pals in the first place.

And there’s the rub. “Two Gentlemen’s” plot hinges on Proteus’ first sighting of the Duke of Milan’s daughter, Sylvia (Tracy Merrifield), and his snap decision to go after Valentine’s object.

*

Shakespeare wants us to believe that, in about three seconds, Proteus would make enemies of his nearest and dearest friend in order to be with a woman he’s never spoken to. Without making this plot point credible, there is no play.

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Alas, not even Brien’s reservoir of energy can sell us on this, and his double-duty as director doesn’t help.

Problems continue with dull scene after dull scene, including exchanges between Berglund and Julia and her waiting woman, Lucetta (Melissa Miles), that echo nothing less--or more--than “Beverly Hills 90210.”

Tim Ferris contributes needed verve as Valentine’s wily servant, Speed. Well-spoken Charles Massaro is wasted in the stock “other man” role of Thurio. Tom Scott’s Lance seems to be struggling with his dog, Crab (played by unruly pooch Rory). Merrifield is elegantly vapid as Sylvia, but Tom Nabhan’s Duke unfortunately recalls Bill Bixby as Everydad.

Even more unfortunate is the sound system--a rigging of wires holding mikes, which sometimes do and sometimes don’t pick up the actors’ voices.

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The outdoor setting (better than previous summer locales the company has used) is marred by an ugly set of painted flats (by Ann Nelson) and a poor lighting design (uncredited). It’s not a pretty sight and best viewed from the rear of the festival seating--with folding chairs, jackets and blankets.

* “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Camino Real Playhouse in Historic Town Center Park, 31776 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. Friday-Sunday. $10. Ends Aug. 2. (949) 489-8082. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

“The Two Gentlemen of Verona,”

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Patrick Brien: Proteus

William Tanner IV: Valentine

Samantha Berglund: Julia

Tim Ferris: Speed

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Tracy Merrifield: Sylvia

Tom Nabhan: Duke of Milan/Antonio

Tom Scott: Lance

Charles Massaro: Thurio

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Melissa Miles: Lucetta/Outlaw No. 2

A South Orange County Community Theatre production of Shakespeare’s comedy. Directed by Patrick Brien. Scenery: Ann Nelson. Costume coordinators: Colleen Danner and B.J. Scott. Stage manager: Stanton Morales.


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