Two Gentlemen of Verona, performed at the The Barrow Group Theatre, marks the Judith Shakespeare Company’s first full Shakespeare production in six years as well as their first gender-reversed romantic comedy.  But the company is no stranger to gender-reversed casting.  In the past, their productions of Richard the Third and The Tempest have explored non-traditional casting.   Likewise, Two Gents features women playing men and vice versa.

Two Gents masterfully fulfills the non-for-profit performance ensemble’s mission with their excellent casting alone.  By allowing women to play men, JSC successfully expands the “presence of women in classical theater.” To the same effect, the vivid stage presence brought by a gender-reversed cast enlivens “Shakespeare’s language to life with clarity and vitality,” though several critics consider the play as one of Shakespeare’s weakest works.

Luckily, JSC knows how to make do with what they’ve got.  One of the greatest challenges when adapting Shakespeare to the theater can be making the content relevant and comprehensible to the audience.  Two Gents executes this Herculean task almost flawlessly.  Though Shakespeare’s jokes may now be archaic, when a man wearing a corset delivers them, it’s hard not to laugh.  But the actors don’t need their outlandish costumes to be entertaining, exaggerated mannerisms mimicking a whiny mistress or a foolish gentleman are just as amusing.  The actors also expertly use the entire stage and aisles of the intimate theater, sometimes jumping atop paint-splattered boxes or climbing restlessly on a ladder during a long speech, perhaps hinting at the absurdity and folly of their own words.

Yet, at times, these attempts to honor the themes of the play are undermined when routine comedic outbursts overshadow graver events such as rape and betrayal.  A lack of sound portrayal of distance and time add to this effect, so that the play ends abruptly after a brief apology and reconciliation.  Unfortunately, the lack of a strong catharsis takes a large toll on the confused audience’s conception of the play in its entirety.  Without an emotional connection, their fragmented memories of a few laughs are too easily forgotten.

Check out footage from the TRaC roundtable discussion with guest speaker Alvin Chan, who plays Julia in Judith Shakespeare Company’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”: