Shakespearean plays take over Pittsburgh parks

The cast of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” produced by Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, poses together.

On a stage of grass and under a spotlight made by the sun, a cast of actors told a tale of love, loyalty and the absence of both.

William Shakespeare’s comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” came to life in Frick Park Sunday afternoon. The play was put on by Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, a theatrical organization that performs Shakespeare plays the first four weekends of September, alternating between Frick, Highland and Arsenal Parks.

This fall season’s play, “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” stars the young Valentine, played by Pitt theatre arts junior Jahir Christian, and his supposed friend Proteus, played by 28-year-old Nick Benninger of Greenfield.

Benninger described his take on a character named Proteus as an “awful person” because he turns his back on his lover as well as his friend.

“I am sort of trying to play him like a villain, even though maybe originally that was not the intention for that character ‘cause, as we all know, the past is steeped in misogyny, but it is important to recognize that,” Benninger said.

Still, he likes portraying characters who are villians and don’t see how ridiculous they are, playing on this concept by presenting Proteus as a bit more of a whiny child than an evil villain.

“Two Gentlemen in Verona” begins with Valentine traveling to Milan, where he falls in love with Sylvia, the daughter of the duke played by 24-year-old Christine McGrath from Hampton Township. Proteus, meanwhile, is forced by his father to leave his love, Julia played by 25-year-old Sadie Crow from Wheeling, West Virginia behind and travels to Milan as well, promising Julia he will always love her. Instead, he falls in love with Sylvia and devises a plan to thwart Valentine and Sylvia’s betrothed, Thurio — played by Jennifer Tober, a 49-year-old from Point Breeze and the founder of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks.

Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Park/Cat Aceto
The cast of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” rehearses at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Friendship before performances in Frick Park Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Tober, who also played the character of Launce, Proteus’ servant, was inspired to start Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks in 2005 due to her previous expertise performing Shakespeare outdoors in New York City and her familiarity with Frick Park. She enjoys producing the famous playwright’s works because of the characters’ versatility.

“[Shakespeare’s] characters are just such great characters. They’re so fascinating, and as a woman, I have played so many of the male characters and in this play I play two men … but I don’t play them as men, I just play them as me playing the characters,” Tober said.

Things between Shakespeare’s characters in “Two Gentlemen in Verona” get pretty fascinating when Julia — disguised as a page named Sebastian — arrives in Milan to find the love of her life betraying her and getting his best friend Valentine banished in a game to procure Sylvia.

McGrath’s performance as Sylvia stood out in particular — the delivery of her lines was short and to the point, and the force and hatred in her words when she told Benninger’s Proteus to stop his games and go back to his lover was sincere.

Unlike in Shakespeare’s tragedies, everything ends happily as Valentine is brought back to Milan by Sylvia. Julia also forgives her lover — only after Proteus overcomes his shock and surprise at Julia’s disguise.

Christian said Valentine was an easy character to play because when it comes to girls, the character is as clueless as he is. He readily captured Valentine’s naive spirit and claimed to have had an out-of-body experience during a part of the first scene of the second act, where he saw himself acting.

“My favorite part about performing is when I’m so ingrained in it, I am able to notice things about my performance, notice the world around me,” Christian said. “This performance for me was my favorite so far, even though it’s only our second show.”

While this was Christian’s first time acting with Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, it was Bethel Park audience member 47-year-old Mario Warton’s first time watching the company.

Though some guests did not express much excitement through this weekend’s performance until the end — possibly because of the excessively hot weather — Warton was thrilled from start to finish.

“I can’t imagine anything better I would have done with my day, so it seemed like a good way to spend a Sunday,” Warton said.

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