The Two Gentlemen of Verona ushers in a fresh era for the Jungle

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Valentine (Mo Perry) pals around with Proteus (Christiana Clark)

The Jungle Theater's atmosphere on Friday night was so buoyant that the good vibes lasted through a technical glitch that momentarily darkened the stage. The performers joked about making out, and audience members gave some good-natured hoots and hollers. "See?" a voice called out from the darkness. "This is why we come to live theater!"

It sure is.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is director Sarah Rasmussen's debut as artistic head of the Jungle, and from the first moment it was apparent that things have changed at the cozy Lyn-Lake institution.

Whereas most shows under founding artistic director Bain Boehlke (who appeared, quiet and supportive, in the audience) were enclosed in tight, pristine sets on the Jungle's jewel box of a stage, Gentlemen set designer Andrew Boyce skips a ceiling, with two pink trees reaching past pink walls into exposed rigging. A dozen or so audience members are seated onstage, and performers occasionally appear in the audience, hit by unexpected spotlights.

Any questions about whether this dynamic approach is something Jungle regulars can get used to, though, are quickly answered by an irrepressible, almost ecstatic production of Shakespeare's early comedy. For the piece, Rasmussen has cast all women — and what women!

Gentlemen's ensemble is an all-star team of local female talent, led by Christiana Clark and Mo Perry as Proteus and Valentine, respectively. They're two young men who journey from their titular hometown to Milan, where they both quickly fall for a young royal named Silvia (returning Minneapolis expat Lenne Klingaman). Silvia has eyes only for Valentine, which is just as well since Proteus already has a sweetheart (Maggie Chestovich), who's making plans to come meet him in disguise.

Under Rasmussen's warm direction, the actors feed off each other's energy with a contagious enthusiasm. They're completely confident with their characters and their language, which helps to make this a genuinely funny Shakespeare production. Shá Cage postures, to great comic effect, as Silvia's suitor Thurio; Jungle veteran Wendy Lehr steals every scene she's in as the razor-tongued servant Speed and the proud but pathetic Eglamour.

Innumerable scholarly treatises have been written on gender and casting in Shakespeare, but all that turgid theory evaporates once the storytelling starts. The leads play their callow male characters with a complete conviction that bears few traces of burlesque (though the supporting cast could cool it with the hip-thrusts).

Rasmussen's visual storytelling is so effective — when a character moves downstage, for example, we somehow just understand exactly what that means — that the actors don't need to labor over expository dialogue, and can instead focus on characterization and relationships. The production feels so organic that even the cute animal (Bear the dog, led by Keller as Launce) doesn't come across as a gimmick.

Rasmussen previously directed this production concept at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and it's hard not to draw comparisons between this show and Guthrie Theater artistic director Joseph Haj's debut, Pericles, another production that premiered in Oregon and came to Minneapolis (in that case bringing its out-of-town cast). Pericles is also good, but not nearly this good. The Jungle's Two Gentlemen is the kind of Shakespeare production you wish Shakespeare could have seen. 

IF YOU GO:

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Jungle Theater
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
Through March 27; 612-822-7063



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