Shakespeare, we're told, is universal. From a Zulu "King Lear" to a Hawaiian "Comedy of Errors," the plays can be done anywhere, any old way.
Some of the plays have built-in cultural limits, and director John DeMita disregards them in his adaptation of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at Santa Ana College's Phillips Hall Theatre.
In a distinctly Peter Sellars mood, DeMita has transferred the comedy's realm of northern Italian Renaissance courtly love to early '60s SoCal, specifically a "Gidget" and "Beach Blanket Bingo" kind of So Cal. The goofy beach 'n' rock movies, DeMita explains in a program note, "dealt fairly realistically with the pain of being a teenager concerned with issues of status and love."
We can see what DeMita is getting at. After all, there are love-struck buddies Valentine (Joshua Jones) and Proteus (Ethan M. Rogers); the former falls for the Duke of Milan's unreachable daughter Silvia (Courtney Wagner), the latter for nice Julia (Mayra Castro)--at least until he gets wind of the far more gorgeous Silvia. The comedy darkens as Valentine is betrayed and banished from Milan as Proteus two-times both Valentine and Julia.
In DeMita's conception, Milan becomes Milan College in Southern California, run by the Duke, who's the college dean (the wooden James M. Ward), and Verona is in New England. The wilderness to which Valentine is banished is the beach, and the highwaymen with whom he forms an alliance are surfer dudes and dudettes. Outsiders to the court's full-time beach party vibe are beatniks, like Proteus, dressed in black. (Donna Dickens' costumes are consistently, wonderfully inspired.) Valentine's witty aide Speed is now a smart-aleck Gal Friday (Melisa Halfmann, in the show's best performance).
On practical and cultural levels, though, the staging fails to make sense. A bunch of characters makes the move from Verona to Milan (in reality, a day's trip by horse), which is far less likely when the trip is from New England to Los Angeles. An American college in the '60s is nothing like the highly regimented, ritualistic Milanese court that fascinated Shakespeare, who revisited it in a radically different way in "The Tempest." Last time we checked, surfers wanted to catch waves, not rob people on the road.
And the fundamentals of Renaissance courtship, which "Two Gentlemen" plays to an extreme, are unique to its time and place and resist modernization. Valentine violates these fundamentals, which is why he's sent packing; nothing he does here would get him expelled from Milan College.
The play sometimes has a "Gidget"-like lightness to it, as in the early scenes with Castro and Valerie Manlongat's Lucetta or Halfmann's repartee or Steven Daff's buffed and bronzed beach Adonis, Thurio. The central characters resist this approach, and so Jones, Rogers and Wagner deliver fairly straight Shakespeare. Perhaps most Shakespearean of all is Peter Touchstone's funny Launce and his scene-stealing scruffy sheep dog (played by a fine, uncredited actor).
The real star here is talented designer D. Silvio Volonte, whose SoCal scenery is swiftly dropped from the theater's flies, filling the stage with sand, umbrella tables, chain-link fences, Miles Davis posters and sliding glass doors. It's a terrific designer's workout; it's still not enough to convince us that Gidget goes courtly.
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* "Two Gentlemen of Verona," Santa Ana College, Phillips Hall Theatre, 1530 W. 17th St., Santa Ana. Today, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. (714) 564-5661. $6-$8. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Joshua Jones: Valentine
Ethan M. Rogers: Proteus
Mayra Castro: Julia
Courtney Wagner: Silvia
Melisa Halfmann: Speed
Peter Touchstone: Launce
James M. Ward: Duke
Valerie Manlongat: Lucetta
Steven Daff: Thurio
A Santa Ana College production of Shakespeare's comedy. Directed by John DeMita. Set: D. Silvio Volonte. Costumes: Donna Dickens. Lights: John Vasquez. Sound: Justus Matthews. Makeup: Barbara Matthews.