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Reviews: Season openers at the IRT and Phoenix

September 22, 2014

Comedy is often about surprise. And the biggest surprise in the season-opening comedies at the Indiana Repertory Theatre and the Phoenix Theatre is that the former—Shakespeare’s early (perhaps first) play, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”—proved more ripe for controversy than the latter, a contemporary comedy about Hollywood that opens with a nude body on stage.

“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (running through Oct. 19) starts innocuously enough as the titular friends part, one in search of adventure while his pal stays put. What follows is a first half filled with broad characters, big laughs, and a charming performance by a canine actor (although I could have done without actor Ryan Artzberger’s non-Bard improv reactions).

On a simple but smart set by scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan, the actors are uniformly stronger in their primary roles than in their under-defined secondary ones (a cast of eight is used), with standout work from Chris Bresky as the love-struck Proteus and Lee Stark finding joy, silliness, and sorrow in Julia, who cross-dresses in order to find out what happened to her beloved.

So strong was the reaction to the first act that I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the intermission lobby conversation consisted of patrons wondering why “Two Gents” isn’t as oft-performed as Shakespeare standards “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The answer to that question comes in Act II, when the action is less funny and the dialogue less clever. Worse, it’s difficult to get around the sour feeling left by one of Shakespeare most problematic conclusions. [Spoiler ahead.]

In it, an attempted rape by one of the leads is quickly forgiven—by the attacker’s male friend, not the intended victim. It’s a moment much like the subjugation of the lead female in “The Taming of the Shrew” and, more recently, the slippers in “My Fair Lady” (see review here), that can wreck an otherwise fine production depending on how it is handled.

I’m not suggesting that every play be put through a political-correction filter. What I am saying is that the matter needs to be dealt with in a theatrically satisfying way. Here, director Tim Ocel has opted to take Shakespeare at his word, present the attack, the regret, and the forgiveness as they are and let the chips fall where they may. For me, those chips left a bad taste. Here’s hoping that it will be a topic of discussion among the many school groups that will be seeing the show.

Meanwhile, at the Phoenix, Michael McKeever’s “Clark Gable Slept Here” (through Oct. 19) is set on the evening of the Golden Globes as the nude body of a male prostitute is found in the hotel suite of a nominated action hero.

What follows is 70 minutes of people behaving badly with a few surprises but an unfortunate few laughs. Local vets Charles Goad and Jen Johansen—along with Joshua Coomer, a radiant Maria Diaz, and recent Butler grad Tyler Ostrander work valiantly with the material, but McKeever steadfastly refuses to offer anything that we haven’t seen in “The Player,” “Speed-the-Plow,” or dozens of other plays and movies that showcase the amorality of Hollywood types with more wit, insight and style.

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