The opening last weekend of Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona—incoming artistic director Sarah Rasmussen’s first full production after taking over from Jungle Theater founder Bain Boehlke—ushers in a new era at Uptown’s most prestigious playhouse. For more than twenty-five years, Boehlke presided over his theatrical fiefdom with a unique combination of spiritual freedom and artistic discipline, establishing one of the most respected small theaters in the country. Now it’s Rasmussen’s turn to build on the Jungle’s storied legacy and, as Boehlke’s long shadow slowly recedes, establish an aesthetic and legacy of her own.
Taking a page from the playbook of Guthrie Theater artistic director Joseph Haj—who directed his debut, Pericles, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and brought it here—Rasmussen too developed her version of Two Gentlemen at OSF and revived it here, albeit with an almost entirely new cast. (Christiana Clark, who plays Proteus, was in Rasmussen’s OSF production.)
New artistic directors like to open with their strengths, so going with a proven production isn’t surprising. What is surprising is how fresh and alive this version feels, and how much fun the actors appear to be having, even though the production carries some extra weight in terms of expectations and speculation about what it portends for the Jungle’s future. The Jungle needs to hold onto its subscriber base, and expand it if possible, so a strong first season from Rasmussen is a must.
The big twist in Rasmussen’s Two Gentlemen is an all-female cast, which turns out to be much less revolutionary than it sounds. In fact, after about ten minutes, the fact that women are playing all the parts becomes largely irrelevant, serving mostly as a meta-level talking point for those who like to discuss gender politics over their Chablis and brie. But the gender question can only be set aside this easily because the acting is so superb. Female actors don’t need to play “convincing” men, after all—they just need to portray their characters with enough masculine energy to let the audience’s imagination do the rest. And this they do, brilliantly. Besides, the energy of the play so infectious, and the moment-to-moment experience so entertaining, that thinking too seriously about it seems somewhat beside the point.
At least while the actors are onstage.
Because the truth is, inverting the all-male casting prevalent in Shakespeare’s own time colors this production in all sorts of delightful and surprising ways, starting with the set. Which is very pink.
How pink? Well, even the trees are pink. Which is sort of perfect, because Shakespeare doesn’t get much fluffier than The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Beyond the cotton-candy color palette, Rasmussen’s directorial triumph has more to do with how she taps into the youthful energy of the play as a whole. Many of Shakespeare’s plays (Romeo and Juliet, especially) don’t make much sense unless you allow for the fact that the love-obsessed characters being tormented onstage are actually teenagers. No, normal people aren’t gripped by such volcanic emotions, insane jealousies, lovesick gooiness, crazy schemes, or to-hell-with-the-rest-of-the-world impetuousness. But teenagers are. And Two Gentlemen is nothing if not a teenage fairy tale.
And so, as Proteus, Christiana Clark is an attention-deficit love machine, projecting his passions on every girl he meets. And as Julia, his betrothed, Maggie Chestovich is a tour de force of teen impatience and fury. As Valentine, Mo Perry anchors the moral center of the play with an endearing blend of virtue and awkwardness, and Sha Cage’s performance as Thurio seethes with arrogant bravado (made all the more hilarious because she is a woman playing a cape-flicking twit).
But this isn’t Mean Girls. (Mean guys, yes–because Proteus plots behind his best friend’s back to steal the love of another woman.) In fact, the female characters are bound together by a basic moral code: Men shouldn’t proclaim their love for one woman, then fall head over heels for the next woman they meet. Or cock-block their best friend. Or complicate everyone’s life by lying and scheming and acting like a douche, even in the name of “love.”
This is ironic coming from Shakespeare, of course, because if his characters followed their own advice, he’d have had nothing to write about.
There are too many fine performances in this production to mention them all. Even the dog, Crab, is great. But Jungle veteran Wendy Lehr deserves a shout-out for her hilarious portrayal of Speed, the gimpy messenger, and George Keller (yes, George is a woman) delivers many masterful comic interludes as Launce, even though she is constantly in danger of being upstaged by her dog, Bear (who plays Crab with considerable canine cool).
The bottom line is that Sarah Rasmussen’s Two Gentlemen is an intelligent, enjoyable, engaging production that doesn’t take itself too seriously—just seriously enough to be eminently worthy of the Jungle stage.