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Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Critic

SO THERE actually is a Shakespeare play that Mark Rucker can't enchant.

This may come as news to fans of the busy South Coast Repertory director (whose film debut ``Die, Mommie, Die'' made a splash at Sundance). Rucker's high energy and ingenious tweaking of the Bard has made him perhaps the Southland's unparalleled Shakespeare man. Witness the Fred and Ginger ``Much Ado About Nothing'' he gave us with Douglas Sills a couple of years back or, even further, the Rat Pack ``Taming of the Shrew'' in the mid-1990s.

``Two Gentlemen of Verona,'' however, is a dog of a different stripe, and not simply because the play calls for a live canine. It's early Shakespearean fluff, a rather silly love story that anticipates much greater comic romances. SCR's program notes go to some pains to point out the plays (``Twelfth Night,'' ``As You Like It'' among them) that ``Two Gents'' predated. The same notes also make the point that ``Two Gents'' stands on its own., i.e. is worth staging.

I have my doubts. Even a full-scale embrace of the play's inherent stupidity can be a tough sell.

Granted, Rucker's production at SCR spins occasional gold out of the general silliness. The four leads are self-mocking enough to keep the mood appropriately light. Proteus and Valentine, the two gentlemen in question, begin the production framed against an enormous billboard advertising the virtues of Veronese milk. They toss their mortarboards to the sky, give an exultant whoop and then exchange ``now what?'' looks. The locale, spiffily designed by Darcy Scanlin and lighted by Geoff Korf, is vaguely '50s. When the action moves to Milan, we seem to shift into a scene out of a ``Jetsons'' episode.

The company treats the material with welcome playfulness. Julia (Jennifer Elise Cox) rips up a love letter from her beloved Proteus and then gets down on all fours to kiss the fragments. Cox (who played Jan Brady in the ``Brady Bunch'' movies) gives Julia's desperation a canny sweetness. Scott Soren's feckless Proteus doesn't deserve her. Rachel Dara Wolf has a Joan Cusack-ish sass as Julia's servant Lucetta.

This play, of course, is largely about the boys. The fast friendship of Proteus and Valentine is tested first by their separation (Valentine ventures off to make his fortune in Milan) and later by Proteus falling for Valentine's beloved, Silvia (Nealy Glenn), daughter to the duke of Milan (Preston Maybank). There are a couple of comic servants, one of whom, Launce (Travis Vaden) has a misbehaving dog named Crab.

Rucker seems to particularly enjoy the concept of the journey. Whenever somebody takes a voyage, a miniaturized boat, train or pickup truck makes its way across a downstage track. The Route 66-like outpost manned by the Milanese exiles (Don Took, Hal Landon Jr., John David Keller and Martha McFarland) is another humorous touch.

Would that the package could hang together with greater charm. Soren and Vaden are relegated to earnest straight-man duty, and the production loses a certain energy once it disposes of Cox's Julia. The play itself is the biggest problem. No two ways around it - in Shakespeare's canon, this one's a dog.

TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA - Two and one half stars

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through March 30.

Tickets: $27 to $54. Call (714) 708-5555.

In a nutshell: Creative staging can't enchant one of the Bard's lesser works.
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 14, 2003
Previous Article:SOUND CHECK.

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