Shakespeare in the park is a time honored tradition in the United States. Indianapolis’ Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre adds to this fabric each year with a free weekend of Shakespeare at the White River State Park. Last weekend marked this annual Indianapolis theatre event as HART produced Two Gentlemen of Verona in White River State Park in Indianapolis downtown. A crowd-pleaser Summer after Summer, this Indianapolis arts event is an integral part of the White River State Park Family Arts Series, which engages Indianapolis people with FREE Indianapolis music, theatre and dance. The performance of one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays offered not only a glimpse into the extensive repertoire from the Bard, but also a chance to see some of Indianapolis’ finest actors at work.
Two Gentlemen of Verona is largely agreed to be one of William Shakespeare’s very first scripts. In fact, many of the plot devices and organizational points the script employs seem to be rudimentary precursors to his more famous stories. The story follows two friends as they encounter love and obstacles to love in their young lives. Valentine (Chris Hatch) and Proteus (Adriano Gato) begin the story in two opposing corners. As Proteus pines for his beloved Julia (Phebe Taylor), Valentine scoffs at the idea of being such a slave to love. Valentine sets sail from Verona for Milan. When Proteus is forced to travel by his father, he joins his friend in Milan and learns of Valentine’s extreme change of heart. He is in love with Silvia (Audrey Bertaux-Skeirik) the daughter of a duke. When Proteus lays eyes on her, he seems instantly to forget his love for Julia, vowing to become her lover at any costs.
Proteus’ scheming sets off a plan to run Valentine from Milan, schmooze Silvia’s betrothed nit-wit Thurio into giving up his pursuit of her love and take her for himself. However, Silvia’s hand is not so easily swayed, as she longs for her one true love: Valentine. With elements of his later great plays like the four lovers of As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing and others, the banished lover of Romeo and Juliet and the protests of a pursued woman from A Midsummer Nights Dream, it is clear to see how the Bard cut his teeth writing this early script.
A window into Shakespeare’s development as the foremost playwright of all time, Two Gentlemen of Verona is a valid play. However, it does come with its own set of inherent problems as the Bard began to discover his artistic voice. Proteus’ change of infatuation is a hard shift to follow, as is his redemption in the end. With weakly made plot points (relative of course to the brilliance of the playwright’s later work), thinking too hard about this script can cause one to enter into dangerous territory. Director Michael Shelton is commendable in his work glossing over these, for lack of a better word, mistakes in writing. Rather, his direction focused on taking the audience along on the journey of the characters, whether it made sense or not. With attention to physicality, vocal intonation and interesting staging, Shelton gave his actors license to have fun with this farcical script. In doing so, he gave the same type of permission to his audience.
Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre’s annual Shakespeare in the Park production attracts some of the best acting talent seen on stage in Indianapolis all year. With actors like Robert Neal, Ryan Artzberger, Adriano Gatto and others as part of the cast, it never ceases to amaze that talent, which normally costs upwards of $20.00 to $50.00 per ticket, can be seen for absolutely nothing. In the role of Proteus, Adriano Gatto (recently on stage at the IRT in Becky’s New Car) was delightful. Playing a character with an extremely changeable nature, Gatto made the transition from lover to schemer and even villain flawlessly. Though his part was wrought with weak writing, as far as his motivation for being so malleable, Gatto carried the audience along with him every step of the way.
His counterpart the other Gentleman from Verona Valentine played by Chris Hatch became the unknowing victim of his friend’s crimes. Though Hatch had a strong handle on the language and great chemistry with his fellow actors, I lost the sense of the “straight man” his character was supposed to play. Caught up in the zaniness surrounding him in servant characters like Ryan Artzberger’s Launce and Brian Noffke’s Speed, Hatch made a few too many attempts to go for the joke when the joke belonged to someone else. However, when the writing favored him, his comedic timing was impeccable.
As the bumbling servant Launce, Ryan Artzberger was simply hilarious. Recently seen on stage at the IRT in A Christmas Caroland at the Phoenix Theatre in Reasons to be Pretty, Artzberger is easily one of the most talented actors in Indiana, if not all of the Midwest. As the sloven servant to Proteus with his trusty dog Crab always at hand, Artzberger’s commentary on the play through the eyes of his character offered the best of Shakespearean toilet humor. Artzberger never missed a beat or dropped a joke. However, paired with Casper the dog in the role of Crab, Artzberger happily fell victim to what some call “the most scene stealing non speaking role in the cannon.”
The list of talent in this show goes on and on. As Valentine’s servant Speed, Brian Noffke delivered some of the play’s best language based jokes. In the role of the pushy and screeching Julia, Phebe Taylor made her short stature work for her. Recent Butler University graduate Audrey Bertaux-Skeirik held her own with the heavy hitters of Indianapolis theatre. As Silvia’s intended Thurio, Sam Fain played the perfect picked-on fat kid. And in the role of the Duke, Robert Neal made hilarious connections to the out of touch father.
However, my favorite part of this Indianapolis theatre production had nothing to do with acting, directing, script or any other common theatrical element. FREE Shakespeare at White River State Park creates an atmosphere for enjoying theatre that is rare in Indianapolis. As the main crowd gathers on the lawn in front of the stage with picnics and bottles of wine, the feeling is easy and unpretentious. To see Shakespeare staged in such a public way elicits images of original stagings in London’s Globe Theatre, where the rowdy audience conversed with each other and the actors on stage all the way through the performance. Luckily, the crowd at White River was not quite so active. But to see joggers and people walking their dogs or their kids happen upon live theatre in a very public place, stand to catch a few scenes and walk away discussing what they heard, or better yet to sit down and enjoy the rest of the show is priceless. The tickets may be free, but the experience is worth every penny in the world.
Much thanks to the Allen Whitehill Clowes Foundation and the Lilly Endowment Fund for making experiences like this in Indianapolis culture possible. The next and last part of the White River State Park Family Arts Series is coming up September 11, 2010 at 6:30 pm. Don’t miss a free concert titled “An Evening of Jazz with Rob Dixon and Friends.” Bring your picnic and your wine to enjoy the fleeting days of Summer and the beauty of Indianapolis culture.
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Learn more about Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre here.
White River State Park
801 E Washington St
Indianapolis, IN 46204
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