When you think of Shakespeare in performance, a host of surname-only-needed icons may come immediately to mind: Booth, Barrymore, Olivier, Gielgud. A name unlikely to make that list is: Sinatra.
But the swaggering ghost of the Chairman of the Board hovers over Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s enjoyably jazzed-up production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,’’ directed by Steven Maler, with snazzy and witty choreography by Yo-el Cassell.
This is not to say that either of the two gentlemen of the title — Proteus, played by Peter Cambor, or Valentine, portrayed by Andrew Burnap — possesses anything like Sinatra’s panache. But in terms of attitude, atmosphere, tone, and setting (1960s Las Vegas), this production draws heavily on the ring-a-ding-ding Rat Pack era that Sinatra epitomized. His inimitable voice rings out through Boston Common on recordings of “Luck Be a Lady’’ (while showgirls in pink feathered headdresses dance across the stage), “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road’’), and “What Is This Thing Called Love?’’ In addition, members of Maler’s able cast drop the Shakespearean verse long enough to sing tunes — “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’’ “Witchcraft’’ — that are associated with Sinatra, to the accompaniment of a white-jacketed five-piece jazz band.
Call it “Ocean’s Eleven’’ meets the Bard, with a set by Beowulf Boritt that consists of a tomato-red, half-moon backdrop featuring signs that evoke Vegas (“Flamingo,’’ “Hotel Apache,’’ “The Golden Nugget’’). Or maybe “Two Guys and Two Dolls,’’ given that the play revolves around a battle between Proteus and Valentine for the hand of fair Silvia, a Monroe-esque bombshell well played by Ellen Adair. To be sure, Valentine doesn’t know until very late that he’s engaged in a contest with the man he considers his best friend.
But Proteus is fully prepared to betray his own ladylove, Julia (a piquant Jenna Augen), while secretly scheming to steal Silvia from Valentine. “At first I did adore a twinkling star, but now I worship a celestial sun,’’ Cambor’s Proteus declares airily, after which the actor launches into a rendition of “Witchcraft.’’ It’s an effective song to use at that moment, especially the evocation of the way sexual attraction “strips my conscience bare.’’
Cambor persuasively communicates Proteus’s steady transition from a green pants-and-cardigan-wearing nerd at the beginning of the play to a calculating, cigarette-smoking smoothie. Augen brings poignancy to the role of the pure-hearted Julia, and she delivers a sultry rendition of “Fever’’ that underscores her consuming passion for Proteus. As she sings, windows open on the backdrop to reveal writhing lovers.
Proteus’s subterfuge will require outwitting Silvia’s father, the gangsterish Duke of Milan, portrayed by Rick Park in dese-dem-dose style. First the Duke goes after Valentine with a golf club, then sends him into exile. He meets up with a band of outlaws — dressed in cowboy garb, they materialize to the tune of the theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’’ — and is coerced into becoming their leader. Meanwhile, Julia disguises herself as a male and gains employment as Proteus’s assistant, wearing a bellhop outfit (costumes are by Nancy Leary). She hopes to win the lummox back, though heaven knows why.
There is a lot of slapstick, some of it funny, some of it labored, especially when it involves the gratingly unfunny Thurio (Evan Sanderson), Silvia’s suitor. The “Volare/Who is Silvia’’ number, sung by Cambor, lands with a thud.
Whether it hits or misses, Maler’s frisky approach to the play is not a case of tampering with a classic. “The Two Gentlemen of Verona’’ is an early comedy by Shakespeare, and a deeply flawed, problematic one. Though there is evidence of the playwright’s genius, “Verona’’ is erratically plotted, thinly characterized, and saddled with an infamous — make that ludicrous — ending. The eminent scholar Harold Bloom, in “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,’’ wrote that “Directors and actors would do well to stage the ‘Two Gentlemen’ as travesty or parody …’’
Parody it is, and that’s where “Verona’’ benefits from the always-inventive Larry Coen, as Launce, a clownish servant to Proteus (often accompanied by Crab, his canine companion). During one scene of copious weeping, Coen appears to be channeling Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion from “The Wizard of Oz.’’ Matching Coen jest for jest and caper for caper is Remo Airaldi, as Speed, a servant to Valentine.
These two are not gentlemen, and Launce and Speed don’t seem to regret that one bit, having seen the folly that goes along with that particular station in life.Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.