TWO GENTS by William Shakespeare, adapted by Andrew Joseph Richardson, Jonathan Seinen and Brendan McMurtry-Howlett (Shakespeare in the Ruff). At Withrow Park. To September 2. Pwyc ($15 sugg). 416-367-1652. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Brendan McMurtry-Howlett and Shakespeare in the Ruff deserve a ton of credit. Not only have they successfully rebooted outdoor Shakespeare in the east end, but they're also running an apprenticeship program for teenagers and have booked a solid companion music series to entertain audiences before the play begins. And all this in their first year!
In Two Gents, their version of Two Gentlemen Of Verona, one of the Bard's earliest comedies, the company takes two bold risks: the courtly love quartet has been shifted from Italy to the Canadian prairies circa 1880, and the ending has been rewritten (using lines from other Shakespeare plays and sonnets) to avoid what some scholars consider a misogynistic twist.
In the hands of another company, changes this big could be disastrous. But here the period update adds a nice folksy charm that's carried throughout, and the new ending feels right when it arrives; while much more equitable, it never feels overbearing.
Director McMurtry-Howlett makes wonderful use of the park space. Two giant trees frame the playing area, and actors sneak behind them to change costumes or make their entry. Since there is no back wall, characters sometimes wander off into the distance and can be seen carrying on their business far off in the park - one of many magical touches.
The ensemble does a great job of physically conveying the content of Shakespeare's dense and flowery verse (no performance feels like a recital), but David Patrick Flemming's perpetually frustrated servant Speed is particularly well honed, scoring the biggest laughs.
Since they're already giving Shakespeare In High Park a run for its money, let's hope this ambitious young company becomes a summer fixture.