Getting a handle on the gender-bending hijinks of the bright new production of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" that opened Sunday night at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Allen Elizabethan Theatre is a bit like going on one of those scary carnival rides: It's dizzying at first, but it's fun as you get the hang of it.
"Two Gents" is an early play that's often seen as a sort of apprenticeship effort in which Shakespeare began experimenting with the comedy genre but hadn't yet developed his chops. Maybe.
But however you view its dramatic success or lack thereof, one thing is sure. Shakespeare, whose women characters in the comedies are always more interesting (and smarter) than the men, created in "Two Gents" a play awash in testosterone.
The bromance of Valentine and Proteus is so powerful that Valentine will, in the name of friendship (which the play treats as a virtue equal or superior to sexual love) forgive his buddy for betraying him and trying to steal — and rape — his girl.
We're not sure how the Elizabethans reacted to the spectacle of a man giving "his" woman back to a man who threatened to rape her, but that thud you hear these days is postmodern audiences' collective jaw dropping on the floor.
Which makes the decision of OSF guest artist Sarah Rasmussen, who directed, to cast the play entirely with women actors either a stroke of feminist chutzpah or dramatic genius, or maybe both. There's a lot of man-hugging and good-buddy shoulder-punching delivered by actors with slender waists and high-pitched voices.
Fun with sexual identity is a staple of the comedies — actresses dressed as men can count on laughs when they drink and fart and back-slap with the boys — but this production takes it to a new level.
If Saturday night's opening of "Into the Woods," with its large orchestra taking up most of the Allen Elizabethan Stage, made you think of a concert, "Two Gents" might make you think of a fashion show, with drag king-ish actors parading around in Moria Sine Clinton's gorgeous costumes, a glittering mashup of the lush duds of the Elizabethan gentleman and the punk chic of Vivienne Westwood.
Andrew Boyce's set — a suggestion of an Italian piazza with flagstones, a fountain, some greenery — is simplicity itself, an elegantly plain foil for Clinton's eye-popping finery.
A quick re-cap: Valentine (Sofia Jean Gomez), a bit of a dull bulb, is leaving town for a court position in Milan. His pal Proteus (Christiana Clark), who would prefer to stay home to be with Julia (Erica Sullivan), with whom he is (sort of) in love. But he is ordered by his father to go with Valentine and see a bit of the world, as befits an up-and-coming young gentleman. In Milan, Valentine falls for the Duke's daughter, Sylvia (Vivia Font), who is promised (obstacle alert) to the foppish Thurio (Celeste Den in a silly, stick-on mustache).
Valentine and Sylvia decide — what else? — to elope, but Proteus, who now finds himself wanting Sylvia, double crosses his pal by ratting him out to the Duke (K.T. Vogt, who doubles as Launce). Julia soon turns up in Milan disguised as a boy and becomes her erstwhile lover's page in order to watch him woo Sylvia.
What follows is a mix of medieval friendship narrative, romance and Shakespearean memes that will be refined in better plays to come: rings as love tokens, disguised travelers, transformative forests, girls dressed as boys, the importance of forgiveness, a wise clown, a saucy servant.
Vogt is a hoot as Launce, who is Proteus' servant but plays no part in the action and is in the play primarily to serve up laughs, mainly with two monologues about his dog, Crab (Picasso). Picasso was utterly convincing as a Crab untouched by Launce's litany of his offenses, such as peeing under the Duke's table.
One would like to see a little more caddishness from Proteus, who functions, after all, as the villain. Sara Bruner, standing in for Kjerstine Rose Anderson, is an impertinent Speed, teasing Valentine, bantering with Launce and flying about as his name suggests.
Rasmussen's cross-dressers pile up ironies straight to the ending, with its ringing declaration (here made by a female Proteus) that in the end, one woman will do as well as another.
As a comedy, "Two Gents" won't make you forget "Twelfth Night," "As You Like it" or even "Much Ado About Nothing," but it will make you laugh, and maybe even ponder the cultural wherefores of sexual identity.
It's always a drag to see great Shakespeare mangled in a production that makes you wonder what they were thinking. More rarely, it's a pleasant surprise to see inferior Shakespeare enriched in a production that makes you wonder why somebody didn't think of it sooner.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.