The Star Tribune selected and published three reviews from the more than 30 written by students attending MHSPA’s annual Guthrie Theater event Feb. 10 in Minneapolis. Following are the students’ winning reviews of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

Emily Schwegman, Lakeville South High School

The 2007 Tony awards bestowed a new musical called “Spring Awakening” with the honor of best musical. It stood out among the competition because of the unique juxtaposition of rock ‘n roll music with the classic story of a play written in 1891.

Joe Dowling’s production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” was thrown into a similar time warp, sending the normally pantaloon-clad players of Shakespeare’s works to a TV studio’s broadcast of the play in 1955.

The set immediately establishes this locale, with commercials being broadcast before the start of the play and actors casually waltzing on stage, or studio, chatting with “directors” and “cameramen” whose film is shown on two large black-and-white TV screens. This particular choice benefited both the audience and the actors by allowing a perfect view from every seat surrounding the thrust stage and giving the actors the freedom to play in an almost theatre-in-the-round style while still allowing the audience to see their faces on the screens.

When the film finally begins to roll the actors break out in ’50s-style song and dance, infected with an energy level difficult to maintain throughout the show. The primarily youthful cast, however, prove their abundant stamina. Sun Mee Chomet portrays Julia with a lily-white, innocent personality, which especially shines in her monologue in act one, scene two as she sits on the floor launching the remnants of Proteus’s love letter off an imaginary cliff.

Her counterpart, Proteus (Jonas Goslow), is slightly more sinister than the ingénue, Julia. Having seen his portrayal of the lovesick Demetrius in the Guthrie’s summer production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one is introduced to a less innocent, darker character. Goslow masterfully shows Proteus’s poisonous corruption by his infatuation with Sylvia, the object of his best friend, Valentine’s affection.

For those who don’t regularly flip through the pages of Shakespeare’s plays, the music numbers, the quirky sidekicks, and, of course that lovable pooch hold interest through the drama of the young lovers. The dialogue is periodically broken by the crooning voice of Sasha Andreev spotlighted on stage left and other actors doubling as his backup vocals, singing mostly original compositions written for the show.

One of these compositions is dedicated to possibly the most lovable characters in the ensemble and his big brown eyes. This character is one of the main reasons why “Two Gentlemen” is so seldom produced. Crab the dog plays Lance’s adorable sidekick, giving the duo even more laughs than Lance reels in for himself.

Crab often steals the spotlight from his scenemate, Lance, but Jim Lichtscheidl who portrays the servant to Proteus, has the knack for getting it right back. His scenes with Speed, played by the hilarious Randy Reyes, have the audience rolling in the aisles, but also provoke some controversy with noticeable added improvisation.

The Shakespeare purist would scoff at the improv lines obviously added for laughs and the lines directly addressing members of the audience. One, however, has to keep the updated setting and intended audience intimacy in mind. If Dowling intended to produce the show in the tradition of a classic Shakespeare he obviously would have relocated the cast and their pantaloons to the McGuire Proscenium stage.

After the film stops rolling one must commend Dowling for conquering one of the younger Shakespeare’s less sophisticated plays with a modern twist. The director introduces his Guthrie audience to yet another innovative spin on one of Shakespeare’s less well-known plays, one that had never before graced the stages of the theatre. The technical choices, such as the constantly rolling film cameras throwing 1950s-quality pictures on giant television screens and the sparkling musical numbers, polish many of the rough edges of the script. The primarily young company of actors falters at times but maintains the high energy of the first musical number throughout most of the show. The fools conjure endless peals of laughter; the lovers take their audience through the emotional turmoil of young love versus friendship, and the dog… well, who can resist those big brown puppy-dog eyes?

Emily Schirvar, Stillwater Area High School

The bright lights of the theater and restless murmurings of the audience, which included many jittery schoolchildren, seemed to promise the kind of show that would be talked about for months after.

For the most part, “The Two Gentleman of Verona” gave them exactly what they wanted. Yet, as the actors took their last bows and left the stage, the excitement was joined by an undercurrent of confusion. Despite the bright, larger-than-life setting of the play, I was left with a sense of bafflement not easily forgotten, tainting my original enthusiasm for the work.

Admittedly, Guthrie Director Joe Dowling faced a veritable Augean stable with his direction of ‘Two Gents,” as it is known. Although the play is full of “Sweet love, sweet lines, sweet life!” as Proteus (Jonas Goslow) tells us in the third scene, it is by no means easy to produce. The play is one of Shakespeare’s earlier works, and his experimentation with themes found in later plays is greatly apparent.

The twisting plot is difficult at best. “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is a tale of how the friendship between two men, Proteus (Goslow) and Valentine (Sam Bardwell), is tested by their mutual love of the same woman. When put to the test by the lady Silvia (Valeri Mudek), both Proteus and Valentine recklessly abandon their former assumptions, for better or worse. Left behind by Proteus is his former love, Julia (Sun Mee Chomet), whose decision to follow her lover to Milan is a recipe for disaster. The alternating comic and tragic nature of the play does not lend itself to the mediocre director, and required much creativity on the part of Dowling to conquer.

Unarguably, Dowling’s decision to set the play in the 1950s helped him move towards that goal. The entertaining dance numbers and bright optimism of the era lent the play an aspect of fun that would not have been possible had the play been set in Shakespearean England. Concerns that the two eras could or would not complement each other fell on deaf ears. A combination of bright, colorful lights, well-written and choreographed dance numbers and striking costumes made the play feel like an event; one in which the audience could participate.

Another overwhelming strength of the play was the skill and talent of supporting actors. Memorable characters such as Lucetta (Laura Esping), Julia’s knowledgeable waiting-woman, Lance (Jim Lictscheidl), the indefatigable servant to Proteus, and many others made the play come alive. Considering the added difficulty of developing an additional “off-air” personality, the actors did extremely well in their job of producing life-like characters.

Besides the strong character development apparent in “The Two Gents,” the actors did a great job of bringing the story to the audience. Sections of improvisation, multiple innuendos and a few horrible puns ensured the audience’s animated approval throughout the show. The additional setting of a TV studio increased this concept, allowing for multiple great scenes as well as blurring the line between the play and reality.

On the other hand, this well-executed blend later led to some unfortunate conundrums. Much confusion was afforded by the labyrinthine nature of the setting: a play about a play, that was Shakespearean yet in the 50’s, that was set in a TV studio but only most of it… Even the explanation is potentially mind-numbing. The timeless truths characteristic of Shakespeare’s plays were so bogged down by the complications of the setting that it took strong acting and equally strong performances by the behind-the-scenes members to even keep their heads afloat.

The acting of Jonas Glaslow, who played Proteus, was disappointing. The times in the play that should have been heartrending lacked feeling on the part of Glaslow. This was largely due to his apparent discomfort, as he often appeared jerky and stiff, rather than love-struck. Even his surprise musical talent barely made up for his remoteness from his Proteus.

Luckily, this lack was more than made up for the skill of other cast members. By the end of the play, everything had come together and despite a rather abrupt ending, the enthusiasm of the actors was exceeded only by the enthusiasm of the audience’s applause. Despite some disappointments, I enjoyed the play overall and would see it again with great relish if given the opportunity, if only for the laughs it afforded. On the whole, I would give the performance three stars (out of five), and recommend it to anyone willing to cry some and laugh even more.

Rebecca Wilton, St. Paul Academy and Summit School

When opting to see the staging of a Shakespeare play, one typically expects to see extravagant costumes, to hear loud British bravados, and to have a delayed comprehension of what each character is saying. So when I enter the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust auditorium and see the set of a 1950’s television show, I begin to wonder whether or not Joe Dowling’s first production of ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona” would be his last.

However, I am pleasantly surprised to find that Dowling and set designer Riccardo Hernandez have done a wonderful job in paying close attention to detail and thinking through their decisions set-wise. The action onstage is filmed live and projected onto two large screens, which is at first distracting, but as the show develops the screens are used well. They allow the emphasis of characters’ asides and ensure that every audience member can see what is taking place onstage.

“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is not so much a straight play as a multi-media production, with original 50’s style songs composed by Keith Thomas interspersed between scenes. Though at times a bit tedious and unnecessary, like during certain monologues, the music works well as a transition throughout the play, whose scenes would not have flowed well otherwise.

Instead of overshadowing Shakespeare’s text, the costumes, set and music enhance it. “Two Gentlemen” is one of Shakespeare’s first works for stage, and his amateurism is made clear in this bare-bones play. The beginning is slow and the end is abrupt, but Dowling is able to mask the fact and make the show more complete, and more interesting, by adding dances and other extra elements.

Despite the light, comedic nature of the show, you are pulled in and feel for the characters just as you would in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. You sympathize with Sam Bardwell’s Valentine as you watch Jonas Goslow’s Proteus, Valentine’s best friend, stab him in the back and attempt to steal the love of Silvia, Valentine’s secretly betrothed; you are impressed with Silvia’s fidelity and cheer on Julia in her quest for Proteus, who has deserted her. All four play their parts well; Bardwell is naïve in love, Goslow conniving and selfish, Valeri Mudek as Silvia is fierce yet elusive, and Sun Mee Chomet’s Julia is girlish and audacious. Bardwell, Goslow, Mudek, and Chomet let the youth of their characters shine through and spotlight the ethical struggle of whether personal desire or moral duty takes precedence in love.

The real stars of the show though are Speed (Valentine’s servant), Lance (Proteus’ servant) and Lance’s dog, Crab. Played by Randy Reyes, Jim Lichtscheidl, and the adorable Wyatt respectively, these three comedic roles steal the hearts and the attention of the audience. It is a risk to include a real dog in live performance because of the variability of their behavior, a realization Shakespeare came to and thus never included a dog in any of his shows again, but Lichtscheidl and Wyatt make a perfect team; Wyatt was always on cue and in place, using his cuteness to manipulate the audience into taking no consideration of Lichtscheidl in a most impressive manner. There’s never a dull moment when Lichtscheidl and Reyes are on stage together; they use ingenious physical comedy and Shakespeare’s double entendres to keep the audience laughing throughout their shticks. They even poke fun at Shakespeare’s complex language, often exchanging glances of “huh?” in a very tasteful way.

A show in which Shakespeare tests the waters for themes recurring in his other works, like women disguising themselves as men, servants humorously antagonizing their masters, and the betrayal of friendship for love, ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is a generic script (in terms of Shakespeare) which Joe Dowling has brought to vivid life. The staging and use of movement provide clarity to the story and make it understandable to any audience, Shakespeare veterans or not. You can see the love entanglement forming between Proteus, Julia, Valentine, and Silvia, and when Valentine’s plan to steal Silvia away is discovered your heart breaks because you can see the trap being laid for him, and he cannot.

The relationships are real and believable, the comedy lively, the costumes and set done well and perfectly, picturesquely in tune to the 1950’s. The Two Gentlemen of Verona both eases newcomers into the difficult language of Shakespeare and impresses veterans of the Bard with its successful modern approach.