If you grew up in the 1970s thinking an appreciation of Shakespeare was antithetical to being a macho, macho man and what Helen Reddy was roaring about on the distaff side, just see The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the University of Arizona. It's a comedy of male posturing and female fortitude, reset in the last days of disco.
Two Gents is, frankly, one of Shakespeare's weakest plays. But even an evening of poor Shakespeare is better than a good night on the WB, and the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre and director Samantha K. Wyer strive to provide more meaningful merriment than you'll find on broadcast TV.
The play is so confused that one of the two heroes behaves as reprehensibly as any villain, and the final contrived scene of reconciliation is as bungled as the marketing of quadraphonic sound. Is Shakespeare really buying into the Medieval mindset that valued male friendship over heterosexual romance, or is he, in defiance even of such Renaissance contemporaries as Francis Bacon, trying to subvert that notion? It's a muddle, yet with a few deft touches Wyer manages to give Two Gents sense as a story of 18-year-olds in the waning 1970s.
It's graduation day, 1978, at Verona High School, which, judging by the potentially combustible combination of polyester and bola ties, seems to be in a rural district somewhere near Marana. Valedictorian Valentine sets off to seek his fortune in the city, chiding his buddy Proteus, who remains at home to woo classmate Julia. Before long, though, everybody winds up squinting at the big city's bright lights--not only Valentine and his sidekick Speed, but Proteus and his dumb-jock buddy Launce, Launce's dog Crab, and even Julia.
They wind up not where Shakespeare sent them, in the Italian city of Milan, but--mamma mia!--in a disco called Club Milan, for which costumer Heather TiQueva Long obviously got some great deals after the last Village People revival tour. There, Valentine falls for Silvia, the daughter of the club's owner. But somehow Proteus sets his sights on Silvia, too, and proceeds to disgrace his best friend to get him out of the way. This leaves poor Julia to pine for Proteus in her bedroom amid pictures of such now mercifully forgotten blow-dried wonders as the Bee Gees and Shaun Cassidy. Before long, though, she decides to stake her claim on Proteus, and sets off for Club Milan dressed, as all Shakespearean comic heroines must be, as a boy.
Shakespeare's text provides little clue to Proteus' transformation from Valentine's best friend to his devious romantic rival. As Wyer has it, Proteus becomes a jerk because at Club Milan he turns into a cokehead. And that's not the kind of coke that would help him teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. It's the real thing: the sower of self-indulgence, deceit and disunity. So the role can make sense to a young actor, once he's done a line or two.
Wyer's vision works, by and large, but not every element is entirely convincing. The disco dancing seems too artificial and self-aware; it's funny, but far removed from its cultural inspiration, like a Carol Burnett parody of Saturday Night Fever. The decade seems less revived from personal experience than filtered through That 70s Show and Boogie Nights.
And even when the little details do work--and they do, more often than not--can moving Two Gents to the '70s make the play more appealing to today's audiences? True, the opening-night crowd last Thursday was about half UA students, and in the lobby you could see outfits dating back to the Carter administration worn by guys who hadn't even been born by the Carter administration. But that doesn't mean they understood everything that was going on. It's sad when nobody gets off on the premature-ejaculation jokes.
Delivery of the Shakespearean text was not much of a problem. There is a tendency these days to try to make Shakespeare sound conversational by rattling off the words quickly, and the otherwise able Catherine Kresge as Julia and Emily Allen as Silvia did this so assiduously that some of their lines turned mushy. A better balance was struck by Joshua Lamoreaux as Valentine and Michael Tennant as Proteus, and especially Nathan Gross as Launce, the long-suffering gofer who's more faithful to his troublesome dog than his friends are to their lovers.
This production belongs, however, to Marissa Garcia as Valentine's sidekick, Speed. Garcia made a tremendous impression two years ago as the pubescent 19th-century math whiz in the UA's production of Arcadia, and here again she hits every note perfectly. Not only is she a fine Shakespearean, her every cadence absolutely natural and attuned to the words' multiple meanings, but she's also a great '70s girl geek: supportive but commonsensical, outgoing, enthusiastic, a wry observer, probably too smart for her own good. Why are Valentine and Proteus fighting over the haughty Silvia when they've got Speed at their side? No doubt because Shakespeare created Speed as a male servant. It's a secondary role, but Wyer keeps Garcia on stage most of the time, a steady presence of humor and humanity.
Oh, yes, and in his stage debut as Crab, Petey Gross, despite a few undisciplined moments, makes an able transition from service dog to thespian.
All this is well and good, but now the '70s revival has gone far enough. Please, let's stop the madness before somebody tries to bring back 8-tracks.