THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA by William Shakespeare, directed by Dean Gabourie, with Gina Clayton, Carlos Diaz, Pip Dwyer, Adrian Griffin, Chapelle Jaffe, Jameson Kraemer, Jane Miller, Andrew Scorer, Ivan Sherry and Sanjay Talwar. Presented by Shakespeare in the Rough at Withrow Park (south of Danforth, between Logan and Carlaw). Previews begin tonight (Thursday, July 29), opens Saturday (July 31) and runs to September 6, Wednesday-Saturday 7 pm, matinees Sunday, August 2 and September 6 at 2 pm. Pwyc ($15 sugg). 647-896-9680. Rating: NNNNN
Parks and dogs. They go together like - well, like vaudeville-style duo Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. Those pairings have a special resonance for Shakespeare in the Rough, which this year stages one of the Bard's lesser-known comedies, The Two Gentlemen Of Verona.
Performing in canine-friendly Withrow Park for most of its 11 seasons, the company has dealt with the animals as passers-by in rehearsal and performance. Sometimes they're unexpected participants, too, barking interference or chasing actors who run on or off the grassy stage.
This year, though, a dog is intentionally part of the show. Or, rather, several dogs, for the company held a series of auditions last spring to choose local animals to play Crab, the mutt belonging to Launce, the servant of one of the title figures.
Those leads are Proteus and Valentine, in this production a pair of vaudeville performers who split up when Valentine decides to leave Verona and try his fortune in big-city Milan. Proteus stays because his love, Julia, is in Verona, but when he's forced to go to Milan he falls for Valentine's woman, Silvia, and plots against his best friend to win her love.
Typical Shakespearean comic confusion - and some cross-dressing, of course - follows.
But don't forget the dog, another source of comedy. No use reminding the company that W. C. Fields advised actors never to compete with animals or children.
"It's such a dog-friendly park," says Gina Clayton, who plays Silvia. "I hear there was no problem getting residents out to audition their pups."
"We have five or six doggie actors," adds the show's Julia, Pip Dwyer, "including a Scottie, a bulldog and a collie/shepherd blend.
"But the one dog we can't get enough of is a Jack Russell who noses his ball like a soccer star. During rehearsals we always stop and watch him. And he's not even in the show."
The two women's parts dovetail in director Dean Gabourie's showbiz-themed production, with Julia as the younger, less-established vaudeville performer and Silvia as the more famous actor.
"We've also made the duke of Milan, Silvia's father, a famous actor who owns all the vaudeville houses in the country," notes Clayton, a fine actor who collaborates regularly with playwright Alexis Bernier, most recently in Breaking Character.
"He's rich and powerful and controls the lives of actors who work for him, making or breaking their careers. I'm his child star grown up," she adds, with a smile.
At its heart, Two Gents is a play about different kinds of love and the lengths people can go when caught in the madness caused by blind Cupid's arrows. There's even some lust thrown in for good measure.
Silvia's been romantically pursued by many, and her father's insisting on a match with another rich actor, Thurio, for whom she feels nothing. Until meeting Valentine, she's never known love.
"On the other hand, Julia's love is a real first crush," offers Dwyer, whose recent work includes leads in As You Like It and Macbeth.
"Since she can't live without Proteus, she disguises herself as a boy and follows him to Milan, doggedly pursuing him, even braving the absolute pain of seeing him woo Silvia.
"That reminds me of being 13 in northern Alberta, when I had my first crush. The guy didn't pay any attention to me. Even when he went for a good friend of mine, I still liked him."
The vaudeville context gives a contemporary turn to the verbal humour and should provide lots of opportunities for comic stage routines. Think Abbott and Costello's classic Who's On First sketch - but with a Renaissance twist. There are even musical numbers that draw on recognizable show tunes.
What the company's working out now is how to deal with the play's quick-wrap-up finale, in which everything is miraculously set right.
"It's a challenge finding a balance through that series of minefields," admits Clayton. "But it's coming together so it plays plausibly and the audience sees the power of forgiveness, that love can redeem people despite seemingly insurmountable problems."