Bardy Har Har

Set against the backdrops of ghostly castles, lonely heaths, magical forests, and islands inhabited by spirits, the plays of William Shakespeare have been offering us insights into the human condition for four hundred years. Complex characters, from Hamlet to Lear to Prospero, from Lady Macbeth to Desdemona to Cleopatra, have wrestled with their souls through language that resonates across the centuries. Granted, not everyone has a taste for the plays, which teem with multiple characters, plots, and allusions, but it's hard not to be in awe of the work. Sometimes we are so in awe we forget that Shakespeare was an artist, like any another, who had to hone his craft.

Scholars diplomatically term the six years from 1588 through 1594 Shakespeare's "apprentice phase." Although he wrote the seductively treacherous Richard III during this time, the boisterous comedies he created were comparatively lightweight foreshadowings of sophisticated work to come. Florida Playwrights' Theatre (FPT) in Hollywood plucks two frisky comedies from these early years for its Third Annual Shakespeare Festival: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, about the misadventures of two friends in love, directed by Angela Thomas, and The Comedy of Errors, a raucous farce about two sets of identical twins, directed by Matthew Regan. And, for the third year in a row, this small company without formal Shakespearean training proves it can serve up Elizabethan theater on a par with more experienced companies.

If you leave these productions without any famous lines ringing in your ears, don't blame yourself for not listening closely enough. The brilliant and eminently quotable gems that glitter throughout Shakespeare's masterworks don't show up here. What you will remember is a plethora of cynical exchanges about the fickle nature of love, witty jabs at marriage, abundant wordplay (including puns, double-entendres, and sexual innuendoes), and enough plot twists to challenge your powers of concentration.

Directors Thomas and Regan seem unfazed by the demanding language and complicated plotting. Each brings a clear-eyed sensibility to the direction. If in places some of their choices seem predictable, we forgive them because ultimately each production is feisty, down-to-earth, and marked by a sense of zany celebration.

Director Thomas opens Two Gents with a nice touch that doesn't appear in the original text but which deftly sets the pace for the recurring verbal sparring. Best buddies on the cusp of manhood, Valentine (John Manzelli) and Proteus (Paul Thomas) bound onto the stage with their swords crossed and fence during their opening speeches: Valentine announces that he is off to Milan and teases Proteus about being too lovesick over Julia (Lissa Grossman) to have the strength to go with him. Proteus, in turn, defends amore.

When his father insists that he join Valentine, Proteus swears his love to Julia forever, then leaves Verona. In Milan, Valentine, once contemptuous of love, has lost his heart to the duke's daughter Silvia (Julia C. Brown). When Proteus arrives at court, he falls in love with Silvia as well. An antic series of scenes follows, depicting betrayal, banishment, outlaws in the forest, and Julia dressing as a boy in order to reclaim her sweetheart. In the end, of course, all the alliances are sorted out and the duke gives his blessing -- the marriages that end most Shakespearean comedies happily occur.

Director Thomas has no illusions about her protagonists. With clean, clipped, and unsentimental direction she coaxes Manzelli and Paul Thomas (her real-life husband) into revealing Valentine and Proteus for who they are: foolish youths, inconstant in matters of the heart. In keeping with this vision, Manzelli and Thomas act like high school teammates, equating falling in love with scoring points. Thomas imbues Proteus with an almost naive arrogance; the character seems to believe he can have exactly what he wants merely because he wants it. Manzelli's Valentine play-acts at being a man. When the character hears he is to be banished, however, the actor reveals the boy within by petulantly curling into the fetal position and whining with despair.

The play's two gentlewomen possess far more integrity and strength of character, standing by their men no matter how much those men test their patience. In a spunky performance, Grossman balances Julia's woman-who-loves-too-much devotion with enterprising gumption. (The character is a precursor to the fully realized heroines of Shakespeare's later comedies, As You Like It's Rosalind and Twelfth Night's Viola, who also dress as boys in order to snare husbands.) At first, as Silvia, Brown doesn't do much more than smile like the love object her character is; when Silvia learns how ready Proteus is to two-time Julia, however, the actress's outrage goes into impassioned overdrive.

Shakespeare's characters reflected the fixed social order of Elizabethan England. Along with members of the aristocratic and merchant classes, a canny servant or two is indispensable to make a Shakespearean comedy, well, a Shakespearean comedy. Here, Valentine's steward Speed (expertly played tongue-in-cheek by the nimble Andre Todd Bruni), Proteus's valet Launce (wittily rendered by Matthew Regan), and Julia's maid Lucetta (given a saucy interpretation by Lori Dolan) parody the tribulations of the main characters with clownish story lines of their own.

This production does hit a few dissonant notes. Thomas elicits an overly exaggerated performance from Hardy Louihis as a nobleman. And she buys a few cheap laughs by having Paul Waxman, as a servant named Panthino, lisp, mince while he walks, and gaze fondly at the backsides of the male actors. Still, the otherwise crisp direction and lively performances make for an animated evening.

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