Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: David Goodloe (left), Chad Bay (right). Photo by Tom McGrath, TCMcG Photography.
By Bec Willett
Is there anything more badass than a Shakespeare in the Park actor? In the past, I may have questioned such rhetoric but after spending a steamy Sunday afternoon watching Elizabethan-costumed actors perform Midsommer Flight’s TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, in my mind they’re worthy of superhero status.
Led by Producing Artistic Director Beth Wolf, Midsommer Flight are mainstays of the Chicago Park Districts Theater in the Parks program. At a swift 90 minutes, this production of TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA is packed with all the classic Shakespearean action and bits we love despite a less-than-loved play. We see Proteus and Valentine’s friendship and their love of two women: Julia and Sylvia respectively. Of course, love is fickle and so when Proteus lays eyes on Valentine’s love, Sylvia, suddenly his attentions change and the story really fires up: deception, disguise, battles, comedic interlude and revelation until all is resolved and the music brings the story to a happy end.
The cast’s endurance of the elements is not all that’s to be admired: their tenacity is matched by skill. Clad in individual color schemes to lend clarity to the story (and with some serious hat game to boot, courtesy of Rachel Sypniewski) the gentlemen seek two different ideals: one of love, and one of honor. As Proteus, Chad Bay is convincingly fickle, his attentions wavering and wilting with the immaturity of young love, yet never losing the confidence that accompanies it. In contrast, David Goodloe’s Valentine embodies honor with a stalwart exterior, yet with enough cluelessness about romance that his ineptitude makes him accessible. Some of the strongest comedic scenes of the production come from the ridicule by his servant Speed (Richard Eisloeffel), whose precision of rhythm allows audiences access to the humor of the text, despite the Elizabethan language. Indeed, a group of grade-schoolers (and younger) were present at the performance and, even in the heat, were attentive and engaged the whole time. Of course, audience interaction with comedic duo Launce (Stephanie Mattos) and Crab – a real-life dog – helped to curtail any boredom that might have accidentally snuck in.
Even with best efforts often made to contextualize and contemporize Shakespeare’s plays, many productions fall short, failing to address acts of misogyny and abuse inherent in the text. With a threatened rape and objectification of women, TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA is arguably one of the most problematic of the canon – which only makes Midsommer Flight’s production all the more impressive. Wolf has changed neither era or the interactive Shakespearean style, nor pretended the acts of oppression and violence just don’t exist. Instead, she has changed the focus of the story from the violent actions of men to the women’s strength in standing against them. With Lakecia Harris as the wounded yet self-sustaining Julia, and Amy Malcom as the intelligent woman of integrity, Sylvia, they make each other stronger, standing together against Proteus’ falsehoods and assassinations. In sync with Wolf’s deft touch, the cast and crew have made this play a message of hope for women, rather than one of damnation by men’s behavior.
There’s a brightly coral half-moon branded on my neck from my hot afternoon at the park. Yet it’s barely noticeable in the face of what I actually came away with: inspired and energized that stories of women of diverse backgrounds standing together is one that can and does exist in this world.
TWO GENTLEMAN OF VERONA runs through August 26th. For more information visit midsommerflight.com.