By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Bag & Baggage seems, in addition to their stated goal of offering Hillsboro “Real.Provocative.Theatre.” to harbor a second mission – that of annually attempting to bring one Shakespeare play to town, and to make it sufficiently accessible that modern audiences will respond favorably. This year, B&B artistic director Scott Palmer’s foray into the world of high culture is The Six Gentlepersons of Verona, a uniquely Palmerian adaptation of Shakespeare’s first comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
The challenge is especially daunting for the current production. In his director’s notes, Palmer freely admits that “Scholars differ, but the general consensus of opinion is this: The Two Gentlemen of Verona is, simply put, not a very good play.” Building on the efforts of two earlier adaptors, Benjamin Victor and John Philip Kimble, Palmer ventures into the deep end of the artistic pool. He not only uses an all-woman cast, nothing but huge cardboard appliance boxes as sets, and 1970’s American costumes and music, but he retains the original Verona/Milanese setting and the Shakespearian dialogue. Surprisingly, it works.
The story is a curious mixture of convoluted plot with simplistic characters. Veronese BFFs Proteus and Valentine are at odds – Valentine is off to make his way in the court of the Duke of Milan, and wants Proteus to accompany him. Proteus, madly in love with the fair but elusive Julia, cannot tear himself away. When Valentine arrives in Milan, he promptly falls for the Duke’s daughter, Silvia. The Duke isn’t buying it – he wants Silvia to marry a local nobleman, and locks her away in a tower to keep her from Valentine. Meanwhile, back in Verona, Proteus’ father sends him off to join Valentine in Milan. Too late, Julia finally declares her love for Proteus, and they exchange rings just before Proteus leaves town. Proteus arrives in Milan, forgets all about Julia, and promptly falls for (wait for it…) Silvia! Proteus learns that Valentine and Silvia plan to elope, and he rids himself of (best friend?) Valentine as a rival by letting the Duke in on the secret. The Duke promptly banishes Valentine, who becomes the leader of a rather genteel group of forest ruffians.
Want more? You’ll just have to see the play – which is not a bad idea. First, there’s this really cute scene-stealing little dog (Mick DuPre, a pug playing the role of “Crab”). Second, the women in the cast do some great a cappella renditions of ‘70s love songs, and there are some fine voices, great harmonies, and innovative rhythm instruments. Third, the actors are superb in their many roles – the five women play 12 different parts (the dog only plays one).
The exceptionally long-limbed Cassie Greer is consistently droll as the languorous, perhaps slightly stoned (it is, after all set in the ‘70s) Proteus. Clara-Liis Hillier (“Valentine”) is in the unenviable position of being the “straight man” in a show that’s all about the comedy – but her remarkable singing voice more than compensates for the relatively simplistic character she must portray. Arianne Jacques (“Julia”), like Hillier, gets few comic moments – but she makes the most of the early scenes where she schizophrenically alternates between rejecting and embracing Proteus’ protestations of love. The best roles in the play are reserved for Jessi Walters – her “Silvia” combines a fine mixture of ardor (for Valentine) and scorn (for the faithless Proteus); her “Lucetta” (Julia’s maid) carries overtones of a good Jewish mother. However, it is as Proteus’ servant Launce that she has the most fun – lots of comic dialogue about her relationship with Crab, plus she gets to carry him! The newcomer to Bag & Baggage is Kaia Hillier (as Valentine’s page Speed), who plays the role like a quintessential stoner and wields her cigarette (whatever it is, it’s not tobacco) like a rapier or a baton (as the moment requires).
Against all odds, Scott Palmer has taken Shakespeare’s vapid, much-maligned attempt at comedy and turned it into an enjoyable 2 hours and 10 minutes of accessible and entertaining theater. We cannot help but wonder how he’ll top this feat next season!
The Six Gentlepersons of Verona is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 235 E. Main Street, through Sunday, March 22 with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.