With “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Harlequin Productions’ Scot Whitney aims to make Shakespeare surprising.
Of course, the plot is going to be somewhat familiar to fans of the bard, even those who haven’t seen or read this particular play, last staged in Olympia in 2014 by Animal Fire Theatre.
There are foolish nobles and fools wise enough to see the truth. There’s a woman dressing as a man. And, as it’s a comedy, there’s a happy ending in which love — however fickle it’s been — triumphs.
But even for Shakespeare, “Two Gentlemen,” said to be one of his earliest plays, has a lot of twists and turns.
“The play is full of surprises,” said Whitney, Harlequin’s managing artistic director, “and the way it is put together physically in our production is full of surprises.”
“It’s a fun ride,” added Jason Haws, a Harlequin mainstay who’s playing the ever-punning fool Launce and an outlaw.
A lot of the delight is in the set, which “moves and unfolds and does all kinds of crazy things,” Whitney said. “It’s not exactly like a pop-up book, where you turn the page and things move, but it has that delightful sort of quality.”
It also has beautiful colors and a medieval aesthetic inspired by the children’s book illustrations of Maxfield Parrish.
The set, designed by Harlequin co-artistic director Linda Whitney, is new but was built from the same plans used for the company’s previous production of “Gentlemen,” two decades ago.
Moving the set falls to the actors, and it’s not easy, Scot Whitney said. “There are moving elements with every scene change, and there are 20-plus scene changes,” he said. “It generally takes six people to make the moves, and it’s all choreographed.”
“With all these pieces moving together, it’s like a puzzle,” Haws said. “It’s such an intense piece of this particular play.”
Another surprise will be the action scenes. “If you read the script, there are no fights,” Whitney said, “but we have a chase scene and we have a big fight. It’s basically two fights right next to each other. We had so much fun putting those together.”
This time around, the show even surprised its director. Two decades ago, Whitney saw the titular gentlemen, friends and rivals Proteus (Adam St. John) and Valentine (Jeffrey Painter), as the fools of the piece.
Now, he’s realized that every character — like every person — is foolish.
“We’re all pretty dopey, especially those in love,” he said. “I think that’s one of the things that Shakespeare is trying to suggest.”
There’s one surprise Whitney decided to avoid: working with a live animal. Launce’s ill-behaved dog, Crab, will be played by a hand puppet, manipulated in two scenes by Haws and in a third by Maggie Ferguson-Wagstaffe, who also plays lady’s maid Lucetta and other small roles.
“It’s a fun challenge,” Haws said. “I’m not a puppeteer, so I’ve had to learn ways of keeping it simple.”
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
What: Harlequin Productions presents a storybook-inspired production of one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays.
When: 8 p.m. Friday (Sept. 30)-Saturday, plus Wednesday-Oct. 8, Oct. 13-15 and 20-22; 2 p.m. Sunday plus Oct. 9 and 16.
Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia.
Tickets: $20-$34; for the Wednesday performance, pay what you can.