Greta Lambert [The Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Director of Education and Outreach, and highly respected actor whose every appearance there is an event in itself] has done it again: for the seventh year in a row, she and the "ASF Bringing the Bard to Life" touring company enliven a Shakespeare play in an abbreviated text to introduce the Bard to high school students around the South and dispel the myth that Shakespeare is hard to understand. -- This year's offering is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, considered by many scholars to be his earliest play, a comedy that germinates many themes, characters, and plot elements that are developed in his later writing.
The current Acting Interns [last seen on their own in September in Charlotte's Web] are an energetic and inventive ensemble who engage their audiences with clear storytelling, precise articulation of Shakespeare's verse, occasional audience involvement, and expert comic timing.
All this is made possible by Ms. Lambert's adept and masterful editing of Shakespeare's script that retains all its essential elements while tweaking its themes and characters into a 1960s setting, along with many anachronistic references and songs that fit the play's intentions and encourage contemporary audiences to connect with the on-stage action. -- Robert F. Wolin's clever set [moveable parts with gloriously rendered painted scenes], and Elizabeth Novak's inventive period costumes, create a stunning visual impact.
The performance lasts less than 90-minutes, and half of the eight member acting company play multiple roles apiece [their quick costume changes disguise the actors so well that one would think there are many more actors filling the roles]; with full commitment to each impersonation and technical skills to match, we simply enjoy the ride.
When Valentine [Andre Revels] heads to Milan, he asks his best friend Proteus [Justy Kosek] to go along; but Proteus is reluctant because he is in love with Julia [Kate Owens]. This young couple exchange rings and profess their undying love when Proteus' father insists he should be with his best friend in Milan. -- Meanwhile, Valentine has fallen in love with Sylvia [Ann Flanigan], the daughter of the Duke of Milan [Joe O'Malley] who wants her to marry Thurio [Joshua Sottile], a rich fop, and locks her away in a tower to keep Valentine at bay. -- When Proteus arrives, he immediately falls for Sylvia and plans to win her away from Proteus...so much for the undying love he professed for Julia and the friendship he held for Valentine.
Back in Verona, Julia plans to go to Milan disguised as a boy, to surprise Proteus; but when she gets there, she discovers Proteus serenading Sylvia [who, by the way, rejects him], and offers to be his servant. -- There is a convoluted plot where the rings they had exchanged are forced upon Proteus, Valentine's capture by outlaws, and a reunion where everyone is reunited. -- Oh, yes, there's a wacky clown called Launce [Javon Q. Minter] and his dog Crab [Tirosh Schneider] who threaten to steal the show on their every appearance.
So many comic conventions are shown in their infancy in Two Gents: a woman disguised as a man who serves him while in disguise, the excessively melodramatic adolescent behavior of romantic teenagers, lovers' inconstancy, an exchange of letters into unintended hands, and a conflict between love and friendship...all of which are resolved by not always credible means.
But, the youthful vivacity of the ASF Intern troupe goes a long way into making these conventions palatable. -- Their complete conviction in telling Shakespeare's story makes for a delightful and sometimes thoughtful entertainment.