Two Gentlemen of Verona, at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival:

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which opened Sunday night, might be summarized by a line from Dickens: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." That is, the audience loved it, and I couldn't stand it.

Two Gentlemen was the first of Shakespeare's comedies, incorporating many elements that he would use in later works. Each of the two gentlemen friends is pursuing a romance, but things get disordered and complicated. One of the girlfriends disguises herself as a man, and learns some unpleasant truths about her beloved. There is a clownish servant whose main job is double-entendres. Everybody ends up in a forest, and then everything turns out alright, with the miscreants forgiven, virtue rewarded, and romances properly resolved.

A straightforward performance of a Shakespeare play is unthinkable these days, so every producer has to think up a novel interpretation. Here, TGV is turned into a play-within-a-play. We watch a "rehearsal" of TGV, with the characters wearing partial costumes on top of their street clothes, using rough props, and moving about a partially-constructed set.

On a physical level, this works very well. The incomplete costumes and set are intriguing.

The problem is the script of the outer play. First all, it consumes a huge amount of time, necessitating enormous cuts in TGV. The cuts seriously impede the development of the main characters, so that their various emotional changes over the course of TGV sometimes seem to have little or no basis.

Second, the replacement of so much Shakespearean dialogue with the dialogue from the outer play is a very bad trade. The outer play--whose plot is a conflict between the director and two actors--could easily be a mediocre and instantly-forgotten television situation comedy.

As a mixture of sit-com and Shakespeare, the outer play does not come close to the elegance, wit, or good jokes of the Gilligan's Island productions of Hamlet or Cleopatra. Indeed, it's not even as good as the Hey Arnold episode where the class puts on Romeo & Juliet.

When TGV itself is actually allowed to go forward, the performances are solid and engaging. Unfortunately, the frequent intrusions of the outer play into the "rehearsal" break the dramatic momentum of a very good play, and jolt the audience back into a lousy play.

"Over the top" is a mild description of the production's frequent use of banal jokes and other simplistic devices. Act II (just before intermission) and the play itself both end with "The Hokey Pokey." And in this performance, The Hokey Pokey really is what it's all about. The play that you will see is not really Two Gentlemen of Verona. The experience is akin to watching Masterpiece Theater on a television set which automatically switches to a bad episode Hee Haw at random intervals.

There's obviously an audience for such a production, since the preview night audience adored the show, laughing heartily and applauding with gusto.

In any case, this year's TGV is not the norm at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, which more typically stages actual productions of the play whose name is on the ticket, and which almost always produces at least one outstanding play every summer.

This summer, the other plays in repertory at the CSF's two stages at the University of Colorado at Boulder are Hamlet, Much Ado about Nothing (set in Barcelona in 1934), and To Kill a Mockingbird.