The Verona Project, California Shakespeare Theater

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Dan Clegg and Arwen Anderson in “The Verona Project”
Photo by Kevin Berne

World Premiere: ‘The Verona Project’

Written, composed and directed by Amanda Dehnert
(Inspired, in part, by Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”)
California Shakespeare Theater (CalShakes), Orinda, Calif.
July 6-31, 2011
(See video clip below.)

You were expecting maybe William Shakespeare? CalShakes’ “The Verona Project” is one part “American Idiot,” one part “The Fantasticks,” one part “Our Town” and only a little bit of the Bard. And it’s wholly entertaining.

Conceived, written and directed by polymath Northwestern University drama professor Amanda Dehnert and performed by an exuberantly talented troupe of actor/musicians (billed as “The Band”), “The Verona Project” takes off on the Shakespeare tale of two friends who fall in and out of love with the same girl—Sylvia, here re-named and gendered as Silvio—and runs with it, actually pretty far out.

Dehnert’s songs are listenable; one, “The Quiet,” set in a graveyard, is absolutely gorgeous. In addition to the usual rock band panoply, the instrumentation uses a ukulele, tambourine, violin and—in an inspired touch—an accordion. Almost everybody sings, with Marisa Duchowny, who portrays the mothers of two of the lovers (both long-deceased) a powerhouse standout. And the occasional interpolations of Shakespearean speeches and lines are both welcome and fun.

Proteus, a kind of spacey New Age guy, is Dan Clegg, who plays him in a kind of spacey New Age way. His lifelong buddy, Valentine, is the sincere and honest Nate Trinrud. Sylvio, the object of both their affections, is Philip Mills. But before Proteus strikes out for the big city, in pursuit of his buddy Val and his own as-yet-unformed identity, he falls in love with the reclusive Julia, the girl down the block who is a veritable repository of secrets and personal insecurities. And, if this play has a leading character it is Julia, inhabited more than played by Arwen Anderson. Anderson, who has performed at just about every one of the Bay Area theater companies, is not your normal, everyday pretty-girl heroine. She reminds me of the one-time Steppenwolf actress Glenne Headly, who starred in the movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” And she is perfect for Julia, blossoming in her long confessional song “Julia Says” and very funny in the masculine disguise she dons to follow her unfaithful lover to the city.

Elena Wright is delightfully ditzy as Sylvio’s airhead fiancée and Adam Yazbeck lends a stern gravitas to the role of his father, the Duke. The cast is rounded out by Harold Pierce, who hams it up appropriately in the smaller roles of Speed and Time, characters defined by their names.

It all adds up to a sweet romance, as well as a meditation on love, loss and the effects of time, cleverly done, with some inspired comic touches. “The Verona Project” may not yet be ready for the big time, but, then again, the title implies a work-in-progress. And, from the progress made so far, things look pretty good.

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