Shakespeare in the park: open-air bargain for theatergoers

Two Gentlemen of Verona Comedy by William Shakespeare. Directed by Stuart Vaughan. Shakespeare's himself again, in Central Park, thanks to the welcome arrival of ``Two Gentlemen of Verona,'' at the Delacorte Theater. The pleasures of the production begin with the open-work setting by Bob Shaw, whose see-through gazebo allows early-evening glimpses of Lake Belvedere beyond. The delights continue with the performance staged by Stuart Vaughan, which combines a broad spoof of courtly romance with incidental medium-to-low comedy turns.

Moving in flights of fancy from Verona to Milan and from Milan to a Mantuan frontier forest, ``Two Gentlemen of Verona'' tells how Proteus (Thomas Gibson) temporarily transforms himself from loyal friend and devoted lover to complete but cheerful cad. Dispatched by his father from Verona to join his friend Valentine in Milan, Proteus not only deserts sweetheart Julia (Elizabeth McGovern) but makes ardent addresses to Silvia (Deborah Rush), beloved of Valentine. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Silvia's father, the Duke of Milan (Jerome Dempsey), has promised her to the rich but foolish Thurio (Richard Ziman).

All's well that ends well, to borrow another Shakespearean title, but not before the Bard has worked over the complications for all their comic worth. And that is how Mr. Vaughan's attractive company treats them. This is ``play acting'' in the extravagant sense of the phrase - that wonderful make-believe conspiracy between players and audience. The production's infectious tone is set in the comic-romantic bravura of Messrs. Goodwin and Gibson as the two gentlemen in question, the demure determination of Miss Rush's Silvia, and the gallant fortitude of Miss McGovern's faithful Julia, who disguises herself as a man to pursue the fickle Proteus.

Even the clowns are funny in this rollicking revival; John Pankow as Valentine's verbally wily serving man, Speed, and Dylan Baker as Proteus' servant, Launce, who intrepidly shares the stage with his dog, Crab. Hazlitt called their second scene together ``a perfect treat,'' and so it is. Crab is played by Roxanne, an ``Annie'' veteran now equally at home in the classics. The fine human cast includes James Lally as Eglamour, the quixotic knight errant who assists in Silvia's escape; Becky Gelke as Julia's no-nonsense maid; and Larry Block as Proteus' father.

In the elegant costumes designed by Lindsay W. Davis, ``Two Gentlemen of Verona'' resembles an opulent Cavalier masque. The finery is admirably suited to Vaughan's playful treatment of letter scenes, passing swordplay (choreographed by B.H. Barry), and courtly revels. When the action shifts to the frontier forest for final revelations, a bevy of wood nymphs flit onto the stage bearing well-trimmed rose trees to suggest the woodland scene. It is a characteristic touch to a roseate revival, whose important credits include Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting), Lee Holby (incidental music), John DeLuca (dance choreography), and William Berloni (Roxanne's trainer). The New York Shakespeare Festival's free-performance schedule ends Aug. 16.

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