When the milk-fed teenagers in Verona, USA, circa 1960, need a long talk with a best friend, they head out to the billboard that advertises the local dairy industry. They clamber up to the shelf at the base of the big sign or just hang out in front of it.
In the opening scene of Mark Rucker's endearingly imaginative staging of Shakespeare's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," Valentine and Proteus meet at the billboard after high school graduation. Valentine is about to depart for the big city of Milan, but Proteus can talk only of his infatuation with Julia. The two defend their choices to each other while they engage in masculine horseplay.
Then we see the giggling Julia and her pal Lucetta meeting in the same place to discuss boys, using a yearbook as a handy reference.
But 1960 wasn't all letter sweaters and yearbooks. Once Valentine and then Proteus get to Milan, they encounter a slicker, sexier world, full of Space Age design and sophisticated threads. Proteus forgets about Julia and about being a gentleman. Here, both men fall for the glamorous Silvia.
This is the third in a series of Shakespearean comedies that Rucker has staged at South Coast Repertory, and it's not quite up to "The Taming of the Shrew" (1996) or "Much Ado About Nothing" (2001). "Shrew" was spectacular in its propulsive pacing and the integrated ingenuity of its concept, and "Much Ado" had the advantages of the best text and brilliant use of music and dance.
Yet Rucker's "Two Gentlemen" is still in the 99th percentile of local Shakespearean productions. The design is replete with witty surprises. And while the play is presented with a wink, it also treats teenage passions and Shakespeare quite seriously. The actors take their time with the text, and most of it emerges with lucidity and grace.
Much of the production's sheen is attributable to Darcy Scanlin's sets, Geoff Korf's lighting and Joyce Kim Lee's costumes. The brightness of the initial billboard set effectively contrasts with the cooler palette of the self-consciously snazzy Milan scenes. A third setting appears in the second act. The young lovers are split up and wandering in the wilderness, which is depicted as a barren slice of a Mojave-like desert, with an abandoned motel in the distance and a rusting gas pump in the foreground. A gang of outlaws lives out here, and in Rucker's concept they're aging bikers in black leather regalia.
Among the actors playing the scruffy degenerates are South Coast founding artists John-David Keller, Hal Landon Jr. and Martha McFarland. Although just about anyone would laugh at this lineup, South Coast's veteran playgoers will find it irresistibly funny.
The old-timers hardly upstage the young blood, however. Speaking often in spotlighted soliloquies, Scott Soren's Proteus transforms from innocent kid to greasy seducer. Gregory Crane's Valentine is a hearty jock who gets to bellow "Silvia!" in a sly reference to Marlon Brando's scene in "A Streetcar Named Desire." The text's worst moment, in which Valentine hastily forgives the potential rapist Proteus by offering him Silvia, is effectively covered up in Rucker's staging.
Jennifer Elise Cox's Julia nimbly moves from frivolous teen to anguished masochist. Nealy Glenn's Silvia is worth all the fuss. A pack of sidekicks clarifies the Shakespearean shtick, led by the Actors' Gang's Daniel T. Parker as Speed and Travis Vaden as Launce, the gents' servants. Their scenes are vaudevillian (and Actors' Gang-like) in their presentational style. The pompadoured Guilford Adams, as Silvia's third suitor, is a hoot, as are Preston Maybank and Don Took as '50s-style fathers.
Aram Arslanian's music is disappointingly generic and not especially well sung. But the songs are so brief that they hardly affect the overall level of satisfaction.
'Two Gentlemen of Verona'
Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.
Ends: March 30
Contact: (714) 708-5555
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Jennifer Elise Cox...Julia
Daniel T. Parker...Speed
Rachel Dara Wolfe...Lucetta
Hal Landon Jr....Panthino
Preston Maybank...Duke of Milan
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Mark Rucker. Sets by Darcy Scanlin. Costumes by Joyce Kim Lee. Lighting by Geoff Korf. Music/sound by Aram Arslanian. Stage manager Scott Harrison.