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'The Verona Project' Turns Lackluster Shakespeare Play into Gay Coming-of-Age Story Source: The Bay Citizen (http://s.tt/12PIT)
BAY CITIZEN

July 11, 2011

Changing a central character's gender injects new life into 'Two Gentlemen of Verona'

Of all the letters in the English language, the one that seems to have made the biggest impression on Shakespeare is “o.” In the prologue to “Henry V,” Shakespeare famously describes the theater as being like a “Wooden O” and in the Quarto of “King Lear,” the vowel conveys the titular character’s unspeakable grief as he howls it four times in a row upon hearing of his daughter Cordelia’s murder.

In “The Verona Project,” Amanda Dehnert’s world premiere musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Two Gentleman of Verona” at California Shakespeare Theater, the letter “o” has a similarly transformative effect. Through the mere act of turning “Silvia” into “Silvio,” Dehnert not only changes the gender of the character at the apex of the play’s love triangle, but in so doing, also performs a refreshingly contemporary—albeit musically inert—makeover on Shakespeare’s early comedy.

Written around 1590, “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” doesn’t show many signs of its author’s genius for plotting or poetry. Riddled with heavy-handed puns about footwear and livestock, it tells a stiff story about two young men (Valentine and Proteus) falling out over a girl (Silvia) that ends in a flurry of hard-to-buy forgiveness on the part of Proteus’ long-suffering girlfriend (Julia.)

By playfully using a simple vowel switcheroo to create a homosexual coming-of-age narrative that sees Valentine and Proteus vying for a male version of Silvia, Denhert imposes upon the play a nuanced vision of romantic love and self-knowledge that’s reminiscent of the clever identity politics in later Shakespeare comedies like “As you Like It” and “Twelfth Night.”

Like Orlando being forced to question his love for Rosalind in “As You Like It” by romancing Rosalind’s male counterfeit, Silvio in “The Verona Project” puts Proteus to the test, forcing him to question his sexual identity and discover what it truly means to trust his instincts.

This is all very zeitgeisty, of course. “The Verona Project” falls in line with several other new musical theater works recently seen on Bay Area stages such as “The Lily’s Revenge” and “Tales of the City.” These productions all focus on gay self-identity stories and implicitly call for the broader legalization of gay marriage through yawping a Whitmanesque view on bold individualism.

Dehnert’s vowel-changing antics are just one way in which “The Verona Project” shows off its individualistic colors. Set in a steampunk-inflected, cutesy-hipster fairytale landscape in which characters grow geraniums in their ovens, speak to each other long-distance using empty food cans connected by string and attempt to step out of the nightmarish shadows of their parents, the production draws in equal parts on Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen and Carl Jung.

Unlike Shakespeare, Dehnert delves deeply into the back-stories of the characters. If Silvio reacts badly to being discovered in a clinch with Valentine by his stern father, it’s ultimately, we discover, because the father hasn’t gotten over the death of Valentine’s mother. And if Julia likes to guard dark secrets about her home-life, it’s because she’s struggling to cope with the loss of both of her parents at a young age.

It’s a risky approach: in updating and transforming Shakespeare’s play in such an iconoclastic manner, Dehnert’s production can feel at times like an interactive undergraduate psychology project crossed with an endless open mic night.

Music plays a big role in the production. The stage is set up like an underground rock concert, littered with guitars, drum-kit, keyboard, amps and other musical paraphernalia. The performers sing, play and act their way through the whole musical, a feat that requires tremendous skill.

Sadly, neither the songs in “The Verona Project,” which are composed by Dehnert, nor the actors’ musicianship skills, are strong enough to support the storytelling. The mostly unmemorable musical numbers are built on tired pop music chord progressions and riffs. With the exception of the strong, lustrous voices of Adam Yazbeck and Marisa Duchowny, the singing generally verges between the unremarkable to the out-of-tune.

And there seems little reason to include lines for clarinet, French horn and trumpet when they can barely be heard over the relentless guitar and pounding drums.

Still, there’s enough that’s endearing about “The Verona Project” to make for an entertaining and thoughtful evening. One delightful aspect of the production, for instance, is Elena Wright’s Thuria, a sweet and ultra-feminine mutation of Thurio, Shakespeare’s frumpy, old male suitor to Sylvia.

Though “The Verona Project” derives much of its narrative drive from the switch from Sylvia to Sylvio, and Thurio/Thuria is only a secondary character in both the original and adaptation, Wright steals the show with her bird of paradise-like, hat-topped outfits and cheeky personality. The character might be a clotheshorse, but at some levels she’s the wisest of all. In an unexpected and thrilling departure from “Two Gentleman of Verona,” Thuria immediately sees Silvio for who he is and easily sets him free. Coming from an essentially trivial character, this statement of understanding and compassion is particularly powerful.

Over the course of three hours, “The Verona Project” travels a good distance away from Shakespeare’s text. But thanks to the letter “o,” which crops up most explicitly in the production in the song “Meaning of O,” the musical’s one engaging musical number describing the loss of words that comes with falling in love, the thread connecting Shakespeare and Dehnert remains intact.

I say O when I see you.
Oh when you see me too
Oh, oh will you turn away
If all I know to say is
Oh

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