SOMERVILLE — To be on hand when an arresting new talent delivers a breakout performance, as one does in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona,’’ is always a noteworthy experience.
Granted, the performer in question proved to be a bit moody and unpredictable on opening night at the Davis Square Theatre. He even went so far as to leave the stage and sprawl under a seat, from whence he wouldn’t return until he was offered a treat. Later, in a clear bid to upstage costar John Kuntz, he began barking incessantly while the latter tried to get through a speech. Kuntz, a pro’s pro, astutely paused and advised him: “Get it all out.’’
Yeah, why not? A scene-stealing pooch is a definite plus when you’re staging a comedy as weak and problematic as “Two Gentlemen of Verona,’’ and this production boasts an irresistible one in a jowly English bulldog named Bruno. He plays Crab, canine companion to Kuntz’s Launce, a voluble servant who is probably the choicest (human) role in the play.
This is the second time in the past year that Actors’ Shakespeare Project has tackled one of the canon’s most flawed works (the other being “The Merry Wives of Windsor’’) and managed to mostly pull it off. Though there’s no way to transcend the infamous ending, director Robert Walsh whips together a high-spirited, reasonably entertaining evening from the thin gruel of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.’’ (The company has dropped the usual “The’’ from the title).
Walsh’s modern-dress production opens with a stately dance number (choreographed by Susan Dibble) in which members of the cast methodically change partners, signaling the allegiance-shifting to come. A later, more explosive dance sequence channels the energy of the contemporary club scene. The director adds a clever
techno-touch: When one character gives a photo of herself to another, the exchange takes place by way of iPhones. A musical interlude dips into other eras, unfolding as a combination of street-corner doo-wop and beatnik-era coffeehouse folk song.
You’re grateful for the distractions, because “Two Gentlemen of Verona’’ is an early comedy notable primarily for its signs of Shakespeare’s future greatness and its reliance on devices, such as a gender-swap disguise, he would later employ in better plays like “Twelfth Night’’ and “As You Like It.’’
The two gentlemen of the title are Proteus (Bill Barclay, in an assured performance) and his best friend, Valentine (Jaime Carrillo), who is more or less attended by Speed, a servant played by the estimable Thomas Derrah, deft as ever here. (Costume designer Miranda Kau Giurleo has devised some eye-catching outfits, including striped tops and striped socks for Kuntz and Derrah. In his stocking cap, with his hair sticking out, Kuntz brings to mind the title character of “Where’s Waldo?’’).
Proteus professes to love a maid named Julia (Paige Clark, excellent), but he decides to throw her over once he arrives in Milan and gets a gander at Valentine’s own beloved, Silvia (Miranda Craigwell). “At first I did adore a twinkling star,’’ says Proteus. “But now I worship a celestial sun.’’
How to get Valentine out of the way? By conniving with Silvia’s mother, the duchess (Marya Lowry), who has a rich suitor in mind for her daughter (the amusing Michael Patrick Kane). Valentine ends up banished from Milan and, eventually, in the company of outlaws in a forest.
Then comes a notorious scene that has long baffled Shakespeare scholars, which begins when Proteus attempts to rape Silvia. In this production, Walsh dilutes the violence by having Proteus sink to his knees and reach out for Silvia, a hapless expression on his face, but it’s still a disturbing episode in a play that has hitherto been played as farce. What happens next is bizarre: Stopped by Valentine, Proteus apologizes, and Valentine not only accepts the apology right away, he then goes on to say that he’ll yield his claims on Silvia to Proteus.
Silvia is speechless, literally. Shakespeare does not give her a single other line amid the ensuing blather that leads to what the Bard evidently saw as a happy ending, though she is the character we most want to hear from.