Can a man love his bro and his woman equally? Rupert Birkin thought so at the end of the D.H. Lawrence novel “Women in Love,” where he tells his love Ursula that he wants “a man friend, as eternal as you and I are eternal.” If Birkin does not identify as bi-sexual or gay, he clearly believes that an emotionally and possibly sexually complex life will complete him as a man.
Over three centuries before Lawrence, Shakespeare arguably pushed the envelope of emotional and sexual complexity in one of his earliest plays. Valentine, one of the title friends in his comedy “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” tells his best friend Proteus-the other gentleman- “All that was mine in Silvia (his romantic love) I give to thee.” Was Valentine a precursor to Birkin? Commonwealth Shakespeare Company may not be staging a ‘gay version’ AT Boston Common as New York’s Greenwich Playhouse did in 2004, but certainly out CSC artistic director Steve Maler’s exuberant summer production (through July 28)does justice to the rich ambiguity of Valentine’s feelings in an effort that proves more satisfying than the uneven play itself.
From the start, there is no ambiguity about the close friendship between Valentine and Proteus, who spar good-naturedly as mates. Even a song-list that underscores diverse relationships throughout the production captures the intensity of their bromance with the perfect signature classic, namely “My Funny Valentine.” Moreover, the former begs the latter to accompany him to Milan and seems sad when he refuses. In light of cues in the dialogue, Valentine could be alluding to his love for Proteus in speaking of giving him “All that was mine in Silvia.” As with all well-staged provocative fare, the CSC take will have theatergoers considering characters with diverse emotional responses among them as much as the relationship between Valentine and Proteus.
Look for enterprising and spirited women, Valentine’s Sylvia and Proteus’ Julia, who respect each other. Expect resourceful servants, Valentine’s Speed and Proteus’ Launce, with a lot of attitude and fine senses of irony. Notice the kind of protective father, Rick Park’s tough love Duke with Sylvia, who becomes a staple character in Shakespeare comedies and tragedies alike.
Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt and lighting designer Eric Southern have given the Verona- Milan nexus of the play a Las Vegas-Atlantic City ambience in which these characters could be right out of “The Sopranos” and Valentine could be mob boss Tony Soprano. Music director Collin Thurmond complements the gritty if stylish atmosphere with hits by Rat Pack favorites Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. All of this is very much to the good as Maler’s smart pacing and lively updating, together with Yo-El Cassell’s crisp choreography, compensates for weaknesses in dialogue and structure. The only area where the update seems unsatisfying involves the outlaws who choose Valentine as their leader and eventually receive a kind of amnesty from the Duke. Despite Nancy O’Leary’s vivid costumes, they would be more convincing as former banished gangsters than cowboys. Their post-intermission stretches seem to drag, but most scenes are either rollickingly fresh or atmospherically arresting.
Equally arresting are the actors playing the pivotal friends- Andrew Burnap as Valentine and Peter Cambor as Proteus. Burnap makes Valentine’s inner conflict about love and friendship very compelling-especially after he realizes that chameleon-like Proteus has informed the Duke about his plan to run off with Sylvia. His performance has all of the heart one expects from a character with the name Valentine. Cambor, who resembles legendary comedian Phil Silvers but with a head of hair, has that actor’s wit and manic energy. He also has good moments of seriousness considering what is happening to his friendship with Valentine.
Jenna Augen is a standout as Julia- particularly when she dresses up as a male page to rescue her romance with Proteus. Her rendition of the Peggy Lee hit “Fever” truly sizzles. Ellen Adair captures Sylvia’s contrasting elegance and unsentimental but ultimately loving demeanor with Valentine. Out CSC favorites Remo Airaldi as Speed and especially Larry Coen as Launce are scene-stealing hoots. Evan Sanderson nails amusing Thurio, a rich foppish suitor who courts Sylvia one moment and actually dances with a male party goer at another.
At one point, music director Thurmond tellingly includes the Sinatra version of ”‘What Is This Thing Called Love?” Occasional male and female stage pairings aside, the CSC’s robustly ambiguous “Two Gentlemen of Verona” makes the answer to that enduring song question richly resonant.
Two Gentlemen of Verona, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Boston Common, through July 28. Free. For info,617-426-0683. www.commshakes.org
Resonance of a very different kind informs out Broadway genius Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins.” Focusing as the title suggests on the assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents, this very dark and sadly timely musical rivals his sometimes equally grim “Sweeney Todd” in tone and treatment. Where the latter possesses actual heroes- daughter Joanna and her adoring, the former may have no hero except the American people. That hero may only exist if the country can free itself from the fascination of many Americans- since disturbing ‘pioneer’ assassin John Wilkes Booth- with guns and violence as a way of dealing with discontent and frustration with economic and other national problems.
Although the show never mentions the NRA, a presiding character identified as Proprietor-played with disarming charm by Kelton Washington- and much more personable than that organization’s tough-talking Wayne LaPierre circulates guns and rifles from a circus game-resembling booth as unregulated as the gun shows where customers continue to purchase weapons without background checks. One by one-and sometimes in ensembles and contrasting pairs -the limbo-located title culprits appear to voice their resentments and their varied tirades against the Presidents in question. If Sondheim has any sympathy at all, it may be for Lee Harveyw Oswald, who often seems more concerned about marital discord with wife Marina than about blaming John F. Kennedy for his problems.
Perhaps Sondheim endorses the questions posed by the Zapruder film about the identity of the JFK assassin (or assassins). In any event, superbly talented Jared Walsh proves very anguished as Oswald and sings with vibrant intensity. Director Joe Demita tautly directs this disturbingly clever musical so that the darkly humorous elements glisten as alarmingly as the deadly serious ones. In a first-rate ensemble, Ian Flynn’s buffoonish Charles J. Guiteau (who killed Garfield) Ben Gold’s ferociously desperate Leon Czolgosz (who killed McKinley) and Katie Preisig’s stunningly quirky Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (who tried to kill Gerald Ford) are particularly riveting.
In the haunting reprise of the anthem-like “Everybody’s Got the Right,” Demita has all of the assassins and would-be assassins hold weapons reinforcing the number’s challenge to America’s strange celebration of violence. At unforgettable moments like that, F.U.D.G.E.Theatre demonstrates why it continues to be a must-see company.
Assassins, F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company, Arsenal Center for the Arts, through July 21. 617-945-0773 or fudgetheatre.com