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Surprises, Gimmicks Lend Modern Flair to Bard Classic

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA Produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

ON the Shakespeare scene, it's getting to the point where a director can surprise the audience by not switching the setting of a play to some place and time never dreamed of by the Bard himself.

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Such restraint is sometimes shown at the New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF), which is capable of a straight-on production now and then. But plenty of space-warps happen there, too, as directors look for new ways to juice up classic works for contemporary theatergoers. Sometimes the results are stimulating. Other times they're tricky and tacky - as in ``The Merry Wives of Windsor'' earlier this summer, which was set in Windsor, Ontario, during the gold-rush days.

Perhaps in repentance for that pointless maneuver, the NYSF is now presenting ``The Two Gentlemen of Verona'' with the trusty old settings - Verona, Milan, a forest near Mantua - specified by the text. Still, this is not the Italy of Shakespeare's day, as the scenery proclaims even before the first act. Dominating the stage is a huge advertising poster for the perfume called Obsession, featuring a naked waif stretched out on a sofa. Clearly this is a post-modern version of Shakespeare's light comedy, decking out its traditional locations with untraditional trappings.

To be fair, the Calvin Klein ad is not entirely gratuitous. Like many Shakespeare plays, this one has a romantic obsession among its themes; and its cross-dressing humor - also a Shakespeare commonplace - has a modern-day echo in the androgyny of the poster model.

The ad's nudity also announces the friskiness about to unfold, which begins with several men flinging off their clothes and jumping into an onstage swimming hole. This is unusual for the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park, which usually stays within PG bounds. Still, it has precedents in respectable works, recalling the frolicsome swimming scene in the movie ``A Room With a View'' as well as the Thomas Eakins painting reproduced in the program for this production.

The remainder of the evening is intermittently successful as director Adrian Hall springs other surprises meant to illuminate or energize the text. The most amusing touch - built into the play, but carried off so well that it feels fresh - is a sweet-faced performance by a shaggy dog named Bugsy, who figures in some of the comedy's more diverting moments. He upstages everyone in sight and everyone accepts this with grace and good humor.

LESS useful are such devices as a gramophone that blares music to punctuate the plot - the overture to Verdi's opera ``La Forza del Destino'' is a favorite - and a motorcycle that spins noisily into view a couple of times. By contrast, the vision of a sailboat coursing smoothly (if inexplicably) through the distant wilds of Central Park is downright magical.

The cast seems in tune with Hall's notions and gimmicks in the first half of the evening, but most performers appear more interested in their own clever contributions than in tight ensemble work. This takes its toll after intermission, when the production's momentum slacks off.

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The strongest single impression is made by Peter J. Gerety, who plays the servant Launce as a Bobcat Goldthwaite clone. Robert Dorfman brings a touch of old-time vaudeville to Speed, the other foolish servant. Malcolm Gets and Joel de la Fuente are fine as the title characters, and Nance Williamson and Lisa Gay Hamilton are better as their respective lovers. Eugene Lee designed the expressive scenery.

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