The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton is currently running five shows in repertory in its stunning Blackfriars Theatre through November 24th, one of them being an excellent production of Two Gentleman from Verona. Deftly directed by ASC’s Director of Mission, Ralph Cohen the show is at once familiar and refreshingly different as elements of several other Shakespeare plays like women dressing up as men and hiding in the woods, an inconstant lover and a planned elopement. And though Cohen is most gifted at working with actors to make music out of Shakespeare’s words and the regular company of players is very good, the scene stealer is the guest artist that plays Crab the dog.
Two Gents in many ways is a commentary about trust and loyalty between friends between lovers and also between masters and servants. Launce and his relationship to his dog sort of summarize the message of the play. The “dog”, a term used most often by Shakespeare’s characters in a derogatory way, (as Cohen points out in his director’s notes) is present to show that even a dog behaves better than most people. Comic actor Benjamin Curns who plays Launce works brilliantly with his four legged scene mates who come from Augusta Dog Adoptions a nonprofit organization that rescues dogs and finds foster homes for them until they are adopted. The challenge for him as actor is that the dog in the show will behave like a dog no matter what Curns says. He must be able to adjust to whatever the dog is doing in a split second and make the language make sense in the moment while staying true to Cohen’s vision for the scene. I mean the dog, even if trained, is still a dog and therefore somewhat unpredictable.
I was so impressed by Curns ability to connect with the dog that was playing Crab the night I saw the show that I sent him a few questions to which he responded. Here is what transpired:
MB: What is the biggest challenge that comes with working with four legged actors?
BC:The biggest challenge is the play itself. What I mean is, the dogs are adorable and cute but Launce doesn’t talk about how they are adorable and cute, he talks about how heartless, unfeeling, and dangerous they are. So an audience can feel genuine pity for the dog,rather than the dogs character and feel genuine ire for me the actor, rather than the character. One must walk a fine line of playing the scene honestly while making sure the dog and the audience feel safe.
MB: Would you be willing to share a particularly funny story about working with one of the dogs in the show?
BC: The dogs have been very entertaining to both me and the audience. They’ve cried out in the middle of scenes, laid down and refused to to leave the stage , and gotten surprisingly “amorous” at times. Mostly it is great whenever they are sweet: we had a dog that as soon as I began to pet him, he collapsed to the stage and rolled to his back to expose his belly. They all think it is all about them!
MB: Do you have a favorite dog that you worked with so far?
BC: I think my favorite dog is a hound dog mix named JR Ewing. As soon as I saw him, I thought that this was look for Launce’s dog. He is very sweet, funny, and he shakes hands on cue which we used to great effect!
MB: How many dogs have been adopted from being int the show? How do you feel when they leave?
BC: I think 2 of the four have been adopted though I am not positive of those details. (ASC will host a dog adoption event in October.) The adoptions are, of course, bittersweet: it’s great these dogs find families and new homes but I do miss them when they go. Just when you start to figure out how to deal with each individual dog, they’re off. Believe me though, I would rather they all get homes. If we run out of dogs, I’ll tell James Keegan to put his dog suit back on.
Lastly, I hope your readers know that these shelter dogs are not mangy, violent, ugly, or beat up in the least. I am not particularly adept with dogs myself but I have found these animals to be adorable, well behaved, hilarious, and easy to get along with. Anyone looking for a great night at the theatre and a possible new pet should check out Two Gentlemen of Verona.