Janus Theater's breezy, la dolce vita-inspired take on "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" almost makes one forget the plot inconsistencies and unsettling, penultimate scene that place Shakespeare's first play firmly among his second-tier efforts.
Director Terry Domschke sets the 16th century comedy in sun-drenched 1950s Italy, where noblewomen and less-than-noble men sip cocktails, croon "Volare" and dance the "Mambo Italiano" while sorting through their tangled relationships. Central to the play is the relationship between Valentine and Proteus, Veronese pals whose friendship falters when they fall for the same woman. At its core, that's what "Two Gentlemen" is all about: the conflict between friendship and passion, between loyalty to a buddy and desire for a woman.
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona"★ ★ ★
Location: Janus Theater Company at Elgin Art Showcase, eighth floor, 164 Division St., Elgin, (847) 841-1713 or janustheater.com
Showtimes: Runs in repertory with "Pride and Prejudice" at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, through July 22
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes including intermission
Parking: Street parking and municipal lot parking available
Rating: Suitable for teens and older
It opens with Dean Gallagher's Valentine -- whose name belies his cynical view of love -- bidding farewell to his best friend Proteus (a deliberately contained Jonathan Crabtree). Valentine is departing Verona to seek his fortune in Milan, while the protean Proteus stays behind to pursue Julia (Julie Soroko), who confesses her love for him to smart, saucy lady-in-waiting Lucetta (Sarah Jean Mergener). However, their budding romance is interrupted when Proteus' mother Antonia (Patricia Rataj, playing a typically male role) orders him to Milan "to be tried and tutored in the world."
As for Valentine, he has fallen for the gingery Silvia (the auburn-haired Melissa Scheele), whose overprotective father the Duke (Bill Sherry, channeling Rat Pack cool) has promised her to Thurio (the menacingly buffoonish James Lundstrom), an unctuous courtier who wears gold chains and brandishes his nail file like a switchblade. Valentine confides his plan to elope with Silvia to Proteus, who has fallen in love with her himself. In a despicable act of betrayal, he informs the Duke, who banishes Valentine, leaving Proteus to pursue his best friend's girl. Silvia -- appalled by Proteus' behavior -- wants nothing to do with him.
Meanwhile, Julia disguises herself as a boy (the better to deter unwanted advances from lascivious men) and sets off for Milan in pursuit of a man who has abandoned her.
Orbiting around these fickle men and their constant women is Valentine's servant Speed (the facile David Russell), a keen observer of his master's foolishness who regularly rolls up to mock him for it. Then there's Proteus' amiable, animal-loving servant Launce (a very funny and endearing Michael J. Henry), whose relationship with his dog Crab -- a "cruel-hearted cur," played by an even-tempered mix named Jambalaya Murschel -- parodies the relationships between the gents and their ladies. Frankly, for all Crab's surliness, theirs may be the soundest relationship of all.
Domschke has assembled an able cast, whose performances reflect not just a facility with Shakespeare's language but a kind of surety that some past Janus productions have lacked. That's especially true of the credible, intense Gallagher. As for Crabtree, his low-key approach suggests benign treachery can be as devastating as a frontal assault, which Proteus attempts against Silvia in the play's waning moments. Also deserving mention is Sherry's cool, cunning Duke, who's a cross between a mafia capo and a headliner at Las Vegas' Sands Hotel circa 1958.
That said, the second act feels sluggish. And as ever, Julia's inexplicable loyalty, Proteus' sudden repentance. Valentine's quick forgiveness and baffling offer to give Silvia to Proteus remain problematic. But Janus' swanky, stylish "Gents" makes them almost palatable.