The Verona Project at CalShakes

On Saturday, Dave and I saw the opening night of The Verona Project at California Shakespeare Theater. I liked it a lot more than I was expecting to, neither rock musicals nor Two Gentlemen of Verona generally being high on my list of ways I’m eager to spend an evening. But I thought the show was endearing, the music was both enjoyable and interesting, and the performers were terrific.

Amanda Dehnert has made a lot of ingenious and fanciful changes to Two Gentlemen and shaped it into an engaging story about a bunch of likeable but flawed people looking for love and discovering that they need to learn and fix some things about their own characters before love has any chance to get through to them. Intriguing elements of fantasy and magic realism are scattered through the story, though the alternative society in which the characters live and travel isn’t really developed much and its peculiarities rarely influence the way the story develops. A highlight is a lovely, rambling song that Julia sings at the start of the second act, “Julia Says”, telling how she came to grow a fantastical garden inside her house, where few could see it, and then only through the windows.

One rather cool twist is that Ms. Dehnert has flip-flopped the sexes of one of the couples in Shakespeare, turning male Thurio and female Sylvia into female Thuria and male Silvio, without changing their roles in the story. Proteus becomes bisexual, then, and what’s more, nobody in the story finds it particularly startling or shocking that his desire wavers back and forth between a woman (Julia) and a man (Sylvio). Sexual orientation is fluid in this world, and it adds a few new layers to the complications. Ms. Dehnert and actor Dan Clegg make Proteus’s impulsive and shifting passions believable and even somehow naive and guileless rather than hurtful and creepy (which is how they tend to come across in the Shakespeare).

In spite of all the fun, and all the good changes made that really should have given the story some emotional weight, I came away feeling that the show felt lightweight; it was completely charming and enjoyable, but it was emotionally engaging only intermittently. This in spite of the fact that I found the story interesting and the characters, despite their various flaws, understandable and likable.

I think there are two main reasons. One is that Ms. Dehnert makes a lot of use of the device of having a character turn to the audience and describe what’s happening to himself or herself in the story. This is a charming device at first, and at times even saves some stage time, as when a character turns to the audience and simply explains some unusual trait of the strange society in which the story takes place. But when it takes the form of, say, the actor playing Julia turning to the audience and saying “Julia felt such and such about what Proteus just said”, instead of finding a way for Julia to convey to us what she’s feeling while staying in character, I think it tends to keep the audience at arm’s length emotionally.

In spite of the best efforts of my theater history and playwriting professors in college, who tried so hard to pass along to me their boundless admiration of Brecht’s theories of epic theater and the “alienation effect”, I’ve just never thought that constantly calling the audience’s attention to the artificiality of theatrical conventions was a good idea. Here and there, sure. Breaking the spell now and then can be playful, it can be ironic, it can be dramatic, it can even be chilling, as when Sweeney Todd suddenly addresses the audience directly in his “Epiphany”.

But when this is done very frequently, I think it ends up sacrificing one of the biggest advantages theater has over other forms of art, its power to convey emotion with a directness and immediacy that no other form has. And, despite Brecht’s fondness for keeping the audience at an emotional distance from the play, I don’t think that that approach gains you enough for what you give up.

This business of actors talking directly to the audience about their characters in the third person is used a lot in The Verona Project, and I think it gets in the way of giving the play the feeling of emotional weight and depth that the play really ought to have — and deserves to have, really, given all the good stuff in it.

(If I’m remembering correctly, there was an adaptation of Emma at the Aurora Theater a few years ago made extensive use of the same device, and I had a similar cool reaction. And Emma is one of my all-time favorite novels.)

The same sense of emotional distance is true of the songs, which seem to me to be terrific songs, musically interesting and inventive and intriguing. Yet, with only a couple of exceptions, they are generally not sung by a character who is actually singing them in character, within the story. Most of the time, the song is written from a point of view outside the story and is used to comment on that character or explain something about him or her. There’s nothing wrong with that as far as any particular song goes, and they’re all enjoyable songs, but when so many of them are like that, it gets in the way of the audience making a strong emotional connection with the story and characters. Or at least it does for me.

Which seemed like a shame to me, because, as I said, I enjoyed the show a lot. It was totally endearing and it held my interest every step of the way; it just never touched me as deeply as I wanted it to, and as I felt it had the potential to. I hope Ms. Dehnert isn’t finished with it quite yet.

The cast is terrific and charming and energetic, and I was completely in love with all of them — psychological flaws and all — by the end of the evening, especially Dan Clegg as Proteus, Nate Trinrud as his childhood friend Valentine, and Arwen Anderson as Proteus’s girlfriend Julia.

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