- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Not just anybody can write like Shakespeare. Sometimes, not even Shakespeare. How else would you explain the wild, inappropriate mood swings — it’s funny; it’s tragic — of “A Winter’s Tale” or “All’s Well That Ends Well?” Or the wretchedly excessive, gut-churning carnage of “Titus Andronicus” (yes, we all crockpot our children) and “Coriolanus?”

For every “Hamlet” in the Bard’s oeuvre, there’s a “Cymbeline.” For every “Romeo and Juliet,” there’s a “Troilus and Cressida.”

The lesser works of Shakespeare have been dubbed by scholars “the problem plays.” The duly deferential euphemism refers to difficulties ranging from authorship — did Shakespeare actually write some of this dreck, or was it from the quill of a hack? — to the queasy mingling of genres and plot developments so absurd that one can only assume they are meant as satire.

Why stage these plays at all? Why not just stick to the ones bearing the factory stamp of the Bard’s genius — “King Lear,” “Othello,” “Twelfth Night” or “Much Ado About Nothing,” to name just a few.

Well, just as a bad day in Florida is a great day anywhere else, even lesser Shakespeare plays, scholars argue, are redeemed by virtues — a cunning character here, a memorable speech there — that compensate for lapses of believability and taste.

Two such plays — “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “Pericles” — are being staged in the District. They are the problems of, respectively, the Folger Theatre and the Shakespeare Theatre.

“I don’t think of these plays as problems, really, as much as really impossibly complex difficulties,” says “Two Gentlemen’s” director Aaron Posner. “They become opportunities if, instead of avoiding them, we delve into the heart of them, attempt to rediscover the impulses that led to them, and then attack them head on.”

“Pericles” director Mary Zimmerman shares this masochistic fondness for Shakespeare’s thornier plays.

“I am interested specifically in the Shakespeare plays that are not done very often,” she says in her director’s notes. “You get to introduce the play to the audience. I think the people who dismiss [‘Pericles’] probably never saw it. It moves. Every scene advances the plot. This play also has a sweetness to it.”

While the differences in approach to these two works are marked, both theaters have adopted some similar strategies — throwing out reams of offending text, hiring innovative directors with an affinity for the unwanted stepchildren of literature, and, in the case of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” highlighting the lesser roles of the servants over the frankly silly romantic leads.

“Two Gentlemen” is an early work, believed to have been written in 1593. Like another freshman effort being staged locally, Anton Chekhov’s “Ivanov,” the play is most notable as a teasing glimpse of the greatness to come. In this comedy, you can see Shakespeare’s first attempt at a “trouser role” (a female character dressing up like a man in order to be with her beloved), as well an early example of his penchant for mingling a goofy love story with discourses on the nature of male friendship.

The play deals with the kind of young love that makes you do stupid, often regrettable, things — a theme that Mr. Posner underscores with music that is heavy on the syrupy pop standards. The songs and the bright, party-pink atmosphere of the staging conjure the sugar highs and inevitable crashes of pimply love.

Valentine (Brian Hamman) and Proteus (Ian Merrill Peakes) are great friends and somewhat shallow men on the move. Proteus is mad about Julia (Karen Peakes), while Valentine swoons over Sylvia (Heidi Armbruster).

All is well until Proteus claps eyes on Sylvia and falls crazily in love. He’ll do anything to win her, even connive against Valentine.

The biggest problem with “Two Gentlemen” centers on a guy nearly raping his best friend’s girl, only to have his pal abruptly trill “all is forgiven” a few minutes later so that the play not only gets its requisite happy ending, but makes way for the romantic convention of a double wedding that unites the two couples.

However, the most challenging staging often involves the portrayal of the dog Crab. Should it be a trained dog? A plush toy? A puppet? Folger’s delightful solution is to have actress Holly Twyford play the ever-patient pooch owned by the acutely observant valet Launce, Shakespeare’s first memorable character. With her big, sad eyes and droopily canine demeanor, Miss Twyford’s depiction of man’s best friend is ear-scratch worthy.

Many of the play’s flaws are adroitly neutralized by having talented actors like Miss Twyford — along with Lucy Newman-Williams and Kate Eastwood Norris — playing the “minor” roles of servants, outlaws and codgers. Exploiting this ingenious stroke of Mr. Posner’s, the trio combines vigorous physical humor, various masks and accents, and their own formidable inventiveness to come up with a robust array of characters.

Miss Twyford morphs seamlessly from a dog to a hyperkinetic servant (aptly named Speed) and a creaky old gent, while Miss Norris is vaudevillian perfection as both Launce and one of the outlaws. Miss Newman-Williams exudes warmth and sagacity as the maid Lucetta and aged elan as the Duke.

Mr. Posner also impeccably casts the roles of the young lovers with actors brimming with good looks and sex appeal, especially Mr. Peakes as Proteus, Miss Armbruster’s golden, Breck Girl evocation of Sylvia, and the scrubbed freshness of Miss Peakes’ Julia. All four actors emphasize the folly and hysteria of the lovers, with Julia squealing like a ‘tween at the mention of Proteus’ name and Sylvia sensually caressing her neck with a rose before pricking herself.

Shifting the focus from the lovers to the supporting players gives “Two Gentlemen of Verona” an unexpected lift and lightness that makes the play’s legendary problems pop like a soap bubble.

“Pericles” is quite another problem.

Written in 1607-08, late in Shakespeare’s career, “Pericles” contains elements of high tragedy, but in structure and style it’s more like an epic poem. The play’s reputation also suffers because Shakespeare might not have written all of it. Another playwright named George Wilkins probably penned the first nine scenes, while Shakespeare wrote the remaining 13, which explains the hauntingly beautiful reconciliation speech between father and daughter in the second half.

Teeming with characters and incident, “Pericles” unfolds like a minor “Odyssey” — epic and grand, but still filled with moments of both delicate intimacy and gracious good humor. Its hero is Pericles (Ryan Artzberger), the Prince of Tyre, who is nobility personified.

In the smashing, exotic opening scene, Pericles is in the midst of solving a riddle that would win him the daughter of King Antiochus (Glenn Fleshler). Trouble is that he has figured out that the riddle alludes to an incestuous relationship between father and daughter. Sensing that Pericles has learned his shameful secret, the king sentences the prince to death. Fleeing for his life, Pericles sets sail for adventure, igniting a series of calamitous events, among them, falling in love with the independent-minded Princess Thaisa (Colleen Delany), who dies giving birth to their daughter Marina during a tempest at sea.

The despondent Pericles leaves his daughter in the custody of friends Cleon (Joseph Costa) and Dionyza (Michelle Shupe). The family is separated for 14 years, during which Pericles becomes increasingly badly groomed and depressed, Thaisa is resuscitated by an alchemist priestess (Sarah Marshall), and Marina (Marguerite Stimpson) goes from the privileged household of her childhood to a brothel, where she sways all of her potential clients away from a life of bawd.

And that’s just Act One.

Rather than run from the play’s unruliness, director Mary Zimmerman has instead embraced it. The result is a transcendently lovely production. She envisions “Pericles” as a sprawling, fantastic fairy tale, where lapses in logic are incidental to overarching lessons about patience, the endurance of familial love and the power of virtue to mold men’s minds.

Miss Zimmerman brings some needed unity to the vagrantly plotted play by staging it in a single room — an 18th-century wood space with towering glass windows. Within these austere confines, she conjures an Arabian night of delights, combining pageantry, overlapping voices, dance, stylized movement and blatantly theatrical stage devices, such as undulating fabric standing in for ocean waves and model ships on poles representing Pericles’ flotilla. Using multiple narrators to tell the story, each reading a passage in turn, she makes the episodic plot — the bane of drama critics since Aristotle — her friend.

Yes, “Pericles” has its confounding improbabilities — Why would Antiochus come up with a riddle that exposes his incest? Why does Pericles leave his daughter for 14 years? — But before your suspended disbelief can come crashing down to earth, your senses are roused by the clean lines, saturated color palette and fantastical elements of the production. Miss Zimmerman even winks at the absurdities of the plot, having, for example, a character intone, “Enter pirates.”

As Pericles, Mr. Artzberger conveys a princely majesty, but he is not particularly affecting, always a risk when a role is written as action figure more than full-bodied character. Other cast members are more successful. Miss Shupe moves faultlessly between the vain and duplicitous wife of a politician to the glowing and imperious goddess Diana, while Colleen Delany gleams with simple goodness as Thaisa. Marguerite Stimpson beguilingly flirts with the redemptive power of innocence as Marina, and on the flip side, Naomi Jacobson is a gaudy, clutching delight as the madam in a brothel.

As in “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” the actors in the smaller roles shine — Floyd King, Erik Steele and John Livingstone Rolle as a trio of flinty New England fishermen (who climb in the window from the briny deep) and Jesse J. Perez as the lustful servant Bolt.

Both “Pericles” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona” abundantly show that Shakespeare’s “problem plays” can be a launching pad for inspiration and magic.

No problem.

***

WHAT: “Two Gentlemen of Verona” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Through Dec. 19.

TICKETS: $30 to $48

PHONE: 202/544-7077

****

WHAT: “Pericles” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW, Washington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 2.

TICKETS: $12.75 to $68

PHONE: 202/547-1122

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