LENOX — Youth will not be denied its passions in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." But it comes at a price, and a hard one at that, in director Jonathan Croy's freewheeling, problematic production of William Shakespeare's problematic romantic-comedy at Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer Playhouse.
In what is rapidly becoming a wearisome cliché on Shakespeare & Company's mainstage, Croy's production begins with a company dance before it plunges into a seemingly madcap 2½-plus hours of farce; charade; lots of audience interaction; more dance; a big musical production number; a flying fish; an irresistible dog (live); a rag-tag trio of bandits who look like they've wandered onto the Tina Packer Playhouse's inviting theater-in-the-round stage from a nearby production of "The Fantasticks"; and an array of acting skills ranging from expert (Jason Asprey as a marvelously cynical servant named Speed; Tamara Hickey as savvy, life-experienced handmaiden named Lucetta; John Hadden as a sublimely hapless servant named Launce) to adequate (Ryan Winkles, Kate Abbruzzese and Cloteal L.
The titular two gentlemen of Verona are close friends — Valentine (Winkles), young, curious, hopelessly naive as he sets off for the court of Milan "to see the wonders of the world abroad"; and Proteus (Brazzle), bound by love to the beguiling Julia (Abbruzzese) who, nonetheless, sets off for Milan to join Valentine. For his part, Valentine has found in Milan one of the world's wonders in the engaging Silvia (Horne), who has captured his heart as he has captured hers.
Like the play itself, Croy's production is at odds with itself, like multiple personalities fighting for control. Croy has said he wanted to create an absurdist atmosphere — a circus of human folly, if you will (my words, not his) — that allows room for the crazy goings on; the anachronisms. But more often than nit, it feels more like ideas being thrown against a wall to see what will stick; played out in sequences that, too often have lives of their own.
Shakespeare is not Croy's best ally here. This is an early play by the Bard. His own struggle to find a clear voice is palpable. Thematic elements and plot devices, structure, turns of language that he would use with mastery in later plays have modest origins here.
On its surface, Croy's production is about theatrical showmanship as a framework for a story about rites of passage, coming of age, the wonder of young love, the discovery of first love and a rush of joyful heady emotions that often conflict and bewilder.
But Croy, in fact, digs deeper. In a sense, this becomes a play about the responsibilities of youth — the peril of pure ingenuous sincerity on the one hand (Valentine) and, on the other, the danger inherent in a personality (Proteus) consumed by a sense of entitlement and instant gratification; operating unfiltered guided by a moral compass whose points of reference are askew.
Newly arrived in Milan to visit Valentine, Proteus falls in love with Silvia the moment he is introduced to her by his friend. At once, Proteus devises a treacherous, duplicitous scheme to make Silvia his own, betraying Julia and Valentine in the process.
"I'll woo you like a soldier, at arms' end, And love you 'gainst the nature of love," Proteus tells Silvia during a walk in the woods, accompanied by Julia, who has come to Milan and disguised herself as a young man named Sebastian in order to keep tabs on Proteus' constancy.
"I'll force thee yield to my desire," Brazzle's Proteus says, his voice growling with intensity and authority as he strips off his shirt, throws Silvia to the ground and drops on top of her, ready to take her forcibly before Valentine, who has been hidden in nearby bushes since hearing Proteus, Silvia and Julia/Sebastian approach, leaps out and throws Proteus off the terrified and confused Silvia.
In perhaps the play's most problematic moment, Valentine, moved by what appears to be genuine remorse from Proteus, offers to give Silvia to him. Shakespeare maneuvers around the obstacle he's created. It's not giving anything drastic away to say that "Two Gents" is, in the end, Shakespearean rom-com and in that context, all's well that ends well. But this is a 16th-century play for a 21st-century audience and Croy has something else in mind as Proteus and Julia, now herself, remain alone while everyone leaves at the end to celebrate Valentine and Silvia's impending wedding.
After all the hurlyburly, in a silence that speaks volumes, it becomes clear that forgiveness is not always possible. Bad acts can, in fact, have righteous consequences.
What: "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Croy
With (partial): Ryan Winkles, Thomas Brazzle, Cloteal L. Horne, Kate Abbruzzese, Tamara Hickey, Jason Asprey, John Hadden, Erick Avari
Who: Shakespeare & Company
Where: Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: Closes Sept. 4. In rotating repertory — selected evenings at 7:30 and afternoons at 2
Running time: 2 hours 41 minutes (including one intermission)
How: 413-637-3353; shakespeare.org; in person at Shakespeare & Company box office on site