BOSTON – If you know Commonwealth Shakespeare Company honcho Steven Maler, or have just seen him addressing the Boston Common crowds, you probably don’t think of him as the kind of guy chain-smoking Lucky Strikes, telling sexist jokes, or slamming people he has a problem with up against the wall (as much as he would have liked to do that to a critic or two over the years).
But in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Maler gets to exercise his inner-Rat Packer and produces one of the most enjoyable of his free Shakespeares on the Common. (It’s a little earlier this year as it’s part of the Outside the Box Festival.) And good on him because this early comedy is far from the best of the Bard. The concept is Shakespearean enough. Lovers can’t entwine because of meddlesome parents, lack of maturity and ethics and, of course, the machinations of a mischievous playwright. Proteus and Valentine are best Veronese buds and Proteus is in love with Julia. Valentine goes off to Milan where he falls in love with Silvia and when Proteus ventures to Milan he also falls for Silvia, dishonoring his obligations to both Valentine and Julia.
Maler switches the locale to Vegas of the ‘50s with Valentine (Andrew Burnap) looking like Frank Sinatra (of “Guys and Dolls”) crossed with Jimmy Cagney. Proteus (Peter Cambor) could be Dean Martin reimagined by Stephen Colbert though his thuggishness is more typical of Sinatra. They are both fine Shakespearean comedians, though both meet their match in the person of Angie Dickinson. I mean, Ellen Adair — the ever-delightful Ellen Adair (“M”). And is Jenna Augen channeling Jerry Lewis doting on Dino when she’s disguised as a bellboy? If so, I wish she’d stop.
The soundtrack is laced with the work of Sinatra and friends, though there’s also an excellent five-piece New England Conservatory band led by Colin Thurmond and the actors are all pretty good crooners as well, particularly Augen.
The ensemble acting is first-rate. Not only are the stars in alignment, but three of Boston’s best comic actors do their thing as the two servants (Remo Airaldi and Larry Coen) and Silvia’s Mafioso father, aka the Duke of Milan (Rick Park). The entire cast is not only fluent in Shakespeare, but able to make the words their own — and fully accessible. Never work with dogs or children? It doesn’t phase Coen, who had a great time with Peter, as Crab, opening night. (Peter is one of four dogs performing the part.)
Maler lets the action get a little too frantic in the second act. The slapstick chase scene doesn’t work at all and Augen isn’t the only one going over the top. Still, there are some wonderful moments – Proteus singing “Silvia” to the tune of “Volare.” No, it doesn’t quite scan, but Cambor, a veteran of the Robert Woodruff A.R.T. years, makes it work beautifully.
Proteus and Valentine, in the end, are not terribly interesting characters, but Adair makes Silvia a sparkling forerunner to Portia, Rosalind and any number of other Shakespeare heroines, both dramatic and comedic.
Maler, the cast and the designers (Beowulf Boritt’s set is a simple evocation of ‘50s Vegas, if that’s not a contradiction in terms) all make “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” a very pleasant night on the Common, even with a drizzle. And Adair, in particular, reminds us that even before he became the Bard of Avon, Shakespeare was always more than just fun and games.
(The nicer the night, the earlier you should get there. Picnics are OK as long as alcohol-free. There's also food on the grounds. Enter from the Tremont street side and you won't have any trouble finding it.)
“A Lot of Livin' to Do” (Andrew Burnap and Peter Cambor)
“You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” (Jenna Augen)
“Luck Be a Lady” (Frank Sinatra)
“I've Got You Under My Skin” (Augen and Cambor)
“Cry Me a River” (Julie London)
“Change Partners” (Burnap)
“Witchcraft” performed by (Cambor)
“One More for My Baby” (Sinatra)
“What is this Thing Called Love” (Sinatra)
“Ain't That a Kick in the Head” (Larry Coen and Remo Airaldi)
“Volare/Who is Silvia” (Cambor)
“Lover Man” (Ellen Adair)
“The Cat” (Jimmy Smith)
“A Lot of Livin’ to Do” (Sammy Davis Jr.)
More Outside the Box:
13 Bands To See For Free At Outside The Box Fest
'Magic Camp' Allows Kids To Discover Tricks — And Themselves
More summer Shakespeare:
This program aired on July 12, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.