LENOX — Believed to have been written around 1594, William Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona" is among the Bard of Avon's least produced plays.
Shakespeare & Company co-artsitic director Jonathan Croy is determined to prove the comedy is better than its reputation. After a week of previews, his production opens Friday in the Tina Packer Playhouse's theater-in-the-round, where it is scheduled to run in rotating repertory with "The Merchant of Venice" and "Or," through Sept. 4.
The early comedy involves a romantic rondelay involving two good friends, Valentine (played by Ryan Winkles) and Proteus (Thomas Brazzle), and the objects of their affections, Sylvia (Cloteal L. Horne) and Julia (Kate Abbruzzese). The play sounds themes and plot devices Shakespeare would explore fully in later plays — the bonds of friendship; the boundaries of love; romantic triangles; inconstancy; the follies of lovers; deceit; disguise; betrayal.
"If 'Cymbeline' is Shakespeare's greatest hits," Croy said, referring to a late Shakespeare romance that embraces elements of earlier plays, "then 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' is his studio album."
"It's one of the few Shakespeare plays I didn't know well," said Winkles, during a joint interview with Croy at the Bernstein Performing Arts complex, where they were rehearsing prior to moving up the hill to the Packer Playhouse for the start of previews. "It contains the seeds of his later plays."
Chief among those seeds is Shakespeare's exploration of love.
"This early, Shakespeare [already] shows that love, especially first love, is far more complicated than we give it credit," said Winkles, an 11th-season Shakespeare & Company veteran whose most recent appearance with the troupe was last season's "Henry V."
"Valentine is inexperienced. He wants to experience the world so he leaves home for the first time."
What happens for Valentine over the course of the play is "a series of firsts, right to the very end," Winkles says.
Part of first love means, Winkles suggests, is that Valentine feels things at an intense, powerful, full-throttle level.
"Emotions, feelings are overwhelming," Winkles said. "You can't see the forest for the trees."
That "Two Gentlemen of Verona" is infrequently produced is no mystery to Croy.
There are problems with the structure. There is a lot of coming and going. Once having been seen, characters often simply disappear.
Also, says Croy, "name the Shakespeare play that has as many soliloquies by as many different characters as this."
And then there is the matter of the ending — a quirky turn in the play's structure, Croy says.
"It's a tricky moment," Winkles said. "There is so much love built into the characters to the point that when a major problem arises, how do you work through it? How do we navigate really rough water? How do we find resolution after serious conflict when forgiveness isn't easy?
"The love among all these characters going into that moment has us asking 'now what?'"
"I think Shakespeare is looking at what happens when an essentially decent person, Proteus, becomes obsessed by love and is led by that obsession to do something he might not ordinarily do," Croy added.
One of the ways Croy has decided to deal with the "quirkiness" in the play's structure is to create what he calls an "absurdist" atmosphere, laden with anachronism "that allows," he says, "for the quirks and the snaps."
That atmosphere, Winkles says, also emphasizes the notion that the fundamental feelings that grip Shakespeare's characters in "Two Gents" are not limited by time or space.
For all the quirks, Croy says his appreciation of "Gents" has been deepened by directing it.
For one thing, Croy said, "in this play, Shakespeare started doing things no one had done before. And you can see in 'Gents' aspects of Laurel and Hardy.
"There really is beauty in this play, absolute beauty. It's an enlightened appreciation of the human spirit."
What: "Two Gentlemen of Verona" by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Croy
Who: Shakespeare & Company
Where: Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: Through Sept. 4 (press opening 7:30 p.m. Friday). In rotating repertory. Selected evenings at 7:30 and afternoons at 2
How: 413-637-3353; shakespeare.org; in person at Shakespeare & Company box office on site