I have never seen a production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, and now I know why. The Bard's early romantic comedy, which Actors' Shakespeare Project is gracing with a very lively revival, takes the problem that makes All's Well That Ends Well a "problem play" and doubles it! Neither of the titular nobles is worthy of the woman who loves him. One is an out-and-out weasel, the other loyal but dim. And the play's finale (involving bandits, attempted rape, and turn-on-a-dime repentance) doles out more whiplash than a car crash. On the other hand, the play is by Shakespeare, and offers, in addition to the seeds of better-known comedies, lyrical flights of language, manic wordplay, a rousing serenade, clowns who are actually funny, and a canine stoic who gives his emotional master fits. Moreover, where said dog is concerned: if W.C. Fields were around today, he might warn animals and children not to share a stage with John Kuntz.
Robert Walsh's eclectic modern-dress production knits the play together with music, including several slinky roundelays built on the exchange of love letters and an amusingly Elvis-like take on "Who is Silvia?" — a ditty later set by Franz Schubert. In this the director is abetted by onstage guitarist Max Kennedy as well as by composer/actor/musician Bill Barclay, who fills in on harmonica, accordion, and vocals when not bringing a clever, callow charm to Proteus. That's the gent who pledges undying love to his Verona squeeze, Julia, before joining friend Valentine at the court of the Duke of Milan (here a duchess, played with cougar flair by Marya Lowry), where he tries to steal Valentine's girl, Silvia.
Happily, the two swains from Verona employ servants, the quicker-than-his-master Speed, played with brawny panache by Thomas Derrah, and the simpler Launce, whose cross to bear is his unfeeling dog, Crab, played with alternating impassivity and volubility by a bulldog named Bruno. To give you but one indication of the freewheeling nature of the production, Kuntz's zany bumpkin of a Launce, on each entrance, favors the same lucky spectator with the neatly bagged results of Crab's latest walking. The clowns' routines aren't always hilarious, but it's fun to watch Derrah and Kuntz spar onstage — even in a Three Stooges routine where the third stooge is a suitcase.
TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA :: Davis Square Theatre, 255 Elm St, Somerville :: Through January 6 :: $28-$50 :: 866.811.4111 or actorsshakespeareproject.org