The eternal truths found in Shakespeare help explain why theater companies often like to give his plays a contemporary setting. Audiences at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills will take it in stride that the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has taken a comedy written in the 1590s, "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and moved it up in time to 1991.
Although this sparely mounted production has a set that only amounts to a simple wood platform on the theater floor, the contemporary clothing on the characters makes them pass for circa 1990s young American adults; and there are enough guitar-strumming musical interludes to underscore the Gen X mood.
Those who know the play initially might wonder about the fact that it's about, well, two young gentlemen from Verona, and there also are references in the dialogue to other Italian cities such as Milan. Just as Shakespeare frankly does not worry about geographic and cultural fidelity in his script, this updated staging does not fuss over such matters.
One potentially intriguing aspect of the update is that director Patrick Kilpatrick cites such crime scandals as the Menendez Brothers murder case and the William Kennedy Smith rape case as his motivation for moving the setting to the 1990s. In a directorial note in the playbill, Kilpatrick says he wanted to show that the play's two lead characters, Proteus and Valentine, are spoiled rich guys who take what they want.
There's nothing in the staging itself to make anything more than the most generic connection between the rich kid misbehavior in Shakespeare's play and these real-life cases, but on that basic level you definitely can appreciate how these chino-and-sweater-clad guys seem like trust-fund brats accustomed to getting their way.
This modernized production also benefits from ensemble-oriented musical numbers worked into the show. Establishing a casual tone, the contemporary music and lyrics help the actors ease into the more formalized diction of the unaltered Shakespeare text. The only reservation here is that scenes relying on solo guitar and voice would benefit from better articulation and projection.
As for the Shakespeare play receiving a new wardrobe and musical accompaniment, this early comedy hardly represents the Bard at his most clever in terms of either plotting or language. If the plot seems overly contrived and the dialogue tends to be less than elevated, the play remains an enjoyable romantic romp.
Ensuring that this production keeps you smiling is savvy casting in the lead roles. As Proteus, Vince Eisenson has an engaging smile that makes this prep school-dressed guy seem like somebody who knows how to get himself into trouble and also how to talk his way out of it. As Proteus' close friend, Valentine, James Jager incisively fits the sidekick role.
This buddy-buddy friendship will be sorely tested by romantic intrigue that's so extreme that it's borderline-absurd. "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" has enough disguised motives and characters to warrant a score card to tabulate the amorous action. There are plenty of obstacles to be overcome, that's for sure.
As the two women at the heart of this tangled story, there are lively performances by Megan Dominy as Julia and Ty Hallmark as Silvia. The two gents from Verona may claim the play's title, but these two women aren't shy about voicing their opinions about courtship.
The main actors are fine, but this production is at its most boisterous when scene-stealing secondary characters dart around a floor-level stage that extends right up to where you're sitting. Jessica Shearer Wilson as the aptly named Speed and Jose Guzman as Launce play servant types, but they're masters of comic timing.
Although the human actors merit your applause, the show is stolen by two real dogs trotting across the stage. The canine references appear in the play, so this production is justified in becoming a dog show. If the human actors are cute, these dogs are adorable.
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" runs through March 17 at The Other Barn, 5851 Robert Oliver Place in Oakland Mills in Columbia. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m. Tickets are $36 ($29 on Thursday), $29 for seniors, $15 for students under 25 (except Saturday). Call 410-313-8661 or go to http://www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.