There is lots of stomping and shouting in the Jungle Theater's broad staging of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," Sarah Rasmussen's first production as artistic director.
Rasmussen has put this early Shakespeare play on a comic treadmill, hoping to squeeze every last drop of juice from one of the bard's lesser works — perhaps his first play and a piece in which he begins to work out themes of friendship, betrayal, disguised identities and forgiveness.
The Jungle has made lots of hay about this being an all-female cast. When Rasmussen did the play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it was indeed newsworthy as the first all-female Shakespeare in the festival's 79-year history. Twin Cities audiences, however, are more accustomed to this practice.
That an all-female cast reverses the Elizabethan tradition of men performing all roles is very welcome, and it opens up some rich and ridiculous characters for women. The issue, though, is less about gender. Arthur Miller once commented that he didn't care for a particular all-black production of "A Death of a Salesman" not because of race but because the actors weren't good. Imagine that. Good actors make the play.
In this regard, Rasmussen is well rewarded for choosing Christiana Clark as Proteus, the rangy and cocky protagonist of "Two Gents." He is the guy who commands center stage, wooing the standoffish Julia and then, after catching his prey, dumping her for the lovely Sylvia. Clark lunges into Proteus' swagger with great physical command — a frat boy on the prowl. In the end, Clark shows us the emotional collapse of a hound who realizes he has betrayed his best friend.
That friend is Valentine, also well dispatched by actor Mo Perry. She inhabits a slim, devilishly handsome fellow, limber and athletic, and possessed of a far kinder heart than his mate. Perry's elegant Valentine does not shy from competition but there is a sense of fairness in his quest to win the heart of the lovely Sylvia — played simply enough by Lenne Kingaman.
Wendy Lehr muscles up her acting chops as Speed and Eglamour, two roles that can handle some clowning. Lehr manages this caricature by committing so thoroughly to an innate reality. Barbara Kingsley, similarly, makes the Tim Burton contours of her performance as the Host seem eccentric but natural.
Rasmussen's high-volume, high-energy approach does risk lapsing into a Punch and Judy show. Maggie Chestovich seems on the edge of a nervous breakdown, most noticeably in her first appearance as Julia. Chestovich did calm down as Friday's opening performance progressed but she works in the upper registers of emotion.
Actor George Keller, as the servant Launce, and her real-life dog, Bear, illustrate the opposite poles of how actors draw laughs. Keller huffs and puffs in cartoonish bursts, setting up a dog who kills us with a simple yawn. What a statement for instinct being the actor's best tool.
Moria Sine Clinton's costumes beautifully articulate for us who is a man and who is a woman. Andrew Boyce floods the stage with pink, in a plain and boxy set that has two climbable trees to a balcony. It is functional, and it supports the candy-coated spirit of Rasmussen's vision.
That vision, though, can expend too much effort and overwhelm the play. That's not the worst thing that could happen to "Two Gents," mind you, and we are clearly persuaded that the new artistic director has opened the Jungle to a new era. The ride might be bumpy but that's part of the fun.