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The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Turning Shakespeare's Early Work into
A Mirror of Ourselves, Warts and All

Fiasco Theater, Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, April 20, 2014, F–2&4 (center stalls)
Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld

In one day, first there was a woman driving the Jeep Grand Cherokee alongside me for several miles heading up the highway, and then a young woman gave me a big ol' smile in the restaurant, and then a hot woman in low-hipped jeans stood next to me at the box office, and finally Sylvia herself stared right at me in fascination. With each of these chance encounters, I entertained illicit, carnal thoughts, even though Sarah, my wife, was at my side each time.

How could I? Because I'm a heterosexual male. Such thoughts are automatic for me, no matter how much I love my wife at the time.

Valentine and Proteus dressed similarly in tan shirts and pants with matching vests sit on the edge of the stage talking, Proteus with his left foot upon on the stage and arm resting on his knee.
Valentine (Zachary FIne, left) and Proteus (Noah Brody) discuss the merits of romantic love on the eve of Valentine's departure to Milan in Fiasco Theater's production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Folger Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood, the Folger Theatre.

To be honest, it usually takes less than a couple minutes before any woman I see or meet loses out in comparison to Sarah. And, to be honest, I'm certain the carnal feelings in all four instances on this day were one way: the woman on the highway was probably texting, the woman in the restaurant was probably blinded by a setting sun behind me, the woman at the box office probably thought I was a pillar in the lobby, and Sylvia certainly was acting—and probably really looking at the famous director sitting two seats in front of me.

It is important that my review of Fiasco Theater's production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Folger starts off with this complete honesty because such is the quality of the six-actor troupe's intelligent yet enthusiastically funny performance of this early (maybe earliest) William Shakespeare play. They do the play with all the ingenuity and Shakespearean expertise that has come to mark this upstart company that burst upon the New York theater scene three years ago with its Cymbeline played by six actors with a trunk (a production that will be revived at The Folger upon the completion of their Two Gents run). They also do the play with raw honesty, fittingly in modern suits and dresses (Whitney Locher, costume designer).

So should we watch it with such honesty, regarding Shakespeare's characters as we really are, not as superior beings to those we see on stage. If we be honest, we'd judge Proteus a little more sympathetically. We are quick to cast him as a villain for being merely human when he forsakes his love to Julia in order to seduce Sylvia, girlfriend of his best friend Valentine. I know, I know, that all sounds bad, but if you've not had carnal thoughts for your best friend's love even for a few seconds or entertained, however briefly, the thought of putting aside your true love for a real lust, then you may cast stones at Proteus.

Granted, Proteus's scheme to get Valentine banished is reprehensible, and his threatened sexual assault on Sylvia is criminal, but Proteus, as Noah Brody plays him in this production, starts out as just one of us guys, and a genuinely good guy, too. That he allows his sudden lust to carry him so far from good reason and social accountability may or may not be the difference that separates him from us: Can you be certain your footing is so sure on fantasies' oily slopes? "O heaven, were man but constant, he were perfect," Proteus says at the end of the play after Valentine rescues Sylvia, and the disguised Julia reveals herself. This line gets some laughs, but Brody speaks it as a truth.

Women, Shakespeare has your number, too, via Julia: "Alas, poor fool, why do I pity him that with his very heart despiseth me? Because he loves her, he despiseth me; Because I love him, I must pity him." So many people watching this play cannot understand how Julia stays with Proteus through to the end and, apparently, beyond. Some directors even change the ending to give it more girl power by having Julia smack Proteus and storm off. Yet, how many of these same people shaking their heads at Julia's acquiescence have themselves reconciled with their own betraying mates or at least put up with their loves' various indiscretions? Heck, bachelor and bachelorette parties with their aims of a last chance for infidelity have become an institutionalized part of weddings.

In Jessie Austrian's portrayal, Julia is no simpering wimp, either. She's a headstrong spitfire. Austrian uses her opening scene of manic behavior toward her maidservant Lucetta (Emily Young, who also plays Sylvia) to establish Julia's self-centeredness and her adventurous nature. She comes across as your typical young professional woman who could easily have ventured into The Folger from her job as a Senate staffer a couple blocks away.

Valentine (Zachary Fine) likewise is a regular Joe, given to bragging a bit too much (his boasting obviously puts off Brody's Proteus when they are discussing their girlfriends). Young's Sylvia is a woman of simple sweetness who rather enjoys the adoration of men. I won't say she flirts with Proteus upon meeting him, but the faux-humility she uses in her banter with him ("Too low a mistress for so high a servant" and "Servant, you are welcome to a worthless mistress") can come across to guys like Proteus and guys like me as a subtle probe of our sexual interest.

In this light, Proteus's subsequent soliloquy strikes uncomfortably home to guys like him. "So the remembrance of my former love is by a newer object quite forgotten. Is it mine eye or Valentine's praise? Her true perfection or my false transgression that makes me reasonless to reason thus? She is fair; and so is Julia that I love—That I did love, for now my love is thawed." Shakespeare deftly displays Proteus's state here with confused contradictions: a remembrance forgotten, a "perfection" that may or may not be "true" (and, at the end, we learn it is not true perfection), a transgression that is false (though he comes to determine his transgression is a necessary truth in his next soliloquy), and reasonless reason—boy, have I experienced a lot of reasonless reason in my lifetime. His love for Julia thaws, like ice into water; I don't see him so much falling out of love with Julia as merely turning his libido onto a more proximate object of interest. In giving this speech, Brody does not come across as callous; rather, he earns some sympathy from the audience. When he gives the disguised Julia the ring she gave him upon their parting, the audience reacts vocally with "Oh no." Do we pity Julia? Or Proteus? Maybe both.

"The characters in Two Gents learn about themselves simply by seeing their selves—their thoughts and desires—reflected and refracted back at them by the other characters," write Fiasco co-founders Brody, Austrian, and Ben Steinfeld in their program notes. "A young Shakespeare has held up a mirror, asking us to examine how and where the self begins, exists, and divides." Frankly, if we'd brought our dogs or cats, they'd likely see a bit of themselves in Crab, too (spoiler alert—for a full description of Crab's portrayal, click here). Despite all the trouble Crab brings his master, Lance (Andy Grotelueschen) still loves the pooch so much he'll endure a whipping or a night in the stocks for Crab's sake. Now that's unconditional love of a manner we see in Julia and Valentine at the end.

Ah, yes, the end. Before we discuss this play's notorious climax, we need to discuss the production's beginning. That this play I have so often disparaged should prove a self-analysis with Shakespeare as my insightful therapist is a credit to an acting company that so absorbs Shakespeare's compositions and allegorical assets they find and subsequently portray deeply psychological nuances in The Bard's characters. They also are among the best practitioners in speaking Shakespeare's verse that I've seen or heard anywhere. This talent is immediately obvious in the two opening scenes in which Proteus parts from Valentine and then encounters Valentine's servant, Speed (Paul L. Coffey, who also plays Thurio, Valentine's rival for Sylvia), and Julia and Lucetta engage in their repartee. Both scenes Shakespeare wrote with pedantic verse structures and obtuse puns, but Brody, Fine, Coffey, Austrian, and Young deliver it all with such refreshing clarity that the audience maintains a near constant laugh track throughout both scenes and come to enjoy and admire all the characters.

Julia sitting in a long mauve gown with white patterns holds a mirror up while behind her Lucetta in white lace dress, apron, and maid's crown brushes Julia's hair
Julia (Jessie Austrian) and her maid Lucetta (Emily Young) discuss men. Photo by Teresa Wood, the Folger Theatre.

Meanwhile, Grotelueschen, who in many other productions as well as this one has proven his Shakespearean cred, is given an opportunity to let his inner imp loose not only as Lance but as Antonio, father of Proteus, and the Duke, father of Sylvia. As the latter, he displays a father's bewildered impatience with his teen daughter, and his entrapment of Valentine is sketch comedy at its best. Grotelueschen is allowed to go off script as Lance in the way the original actor playing Lance, Will Kemp, probably did, and his one line interpolation in the part of Ursula (you remember Ursula in this play, don't you?) causes corpsing among the actors on stage.

Even among professional actors as these, such breaking character is OK. Some scholars believe The Two Gentlemen of Verona to be Shakespeare's first play, and Fiasco makes that a guiding attitude, presenting it with a wide-eyed, unbridled sense of joy on James Kronzer's simple stage of a bare wood, raised, oval platform. When not in a scene, the actors sit in chairs around the platform's perimeter, providing musical soundtracks, sound effects, and off-stage lines, or just watching the on-stage action as enthralled as we are. Handwritten notes become a thematic visual, as the play is concerned with language and letters, and for the final scenes the cast tosses into the air stacks of paper that then scatter across the stage. In addition to letters in the script, Antonio uses a letter to give Proteus his order to sojourn in Milan with Valentine, and Sylvia requests Sebastian's assistance in escaping Milan through a letter; Sebastian is the disguised Julia, and here she replaces Eglamour in the function of transporting Sylvia into the woods where she will be followed by Proteus and ultimately encounter Valentine.

Removing Eglamour is one sacrifice in presenting Two Gents with just six players. The Host and Pantino are likewise cut (Thurio co-ops the host's lines about the disguised Julia not liking his music and gets a big laugh from it). Though the outlaws capture Valentine, Speed is inexplicably absent in this scene (and the outlaws' funny description of their "petty crimes" is also excised, unfortunately).

As for the ending, in which Valentine first stops Proteus from raping Sylvia and then, with Proteus's repentance, gives "all that was mine in Sylvia" to him, Fiasco simply ignores the notorious directorial conundrum by rushing through these lines and getting immediately to Julia's revealing herself. Her doing so is so funny—when she confuses the two rings, she presents the second one to Proteus stuck on her middle finger—we just as quickly forget any previous conundrums.

Whether it was Shakespeare's first play or not, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is unquestionably one of his most immature compositions. Aside from its problematic ending, the plot is full of holes and the narrative full of gaffes. Other directors look for ways to explain away the script's shortcomings with conceptual interpretations or cinematic renderings while glossing over the verse with modern interpretation. Fiasco's production embraces The Two Gentlemen of Verona as is, shortcomings and all, and in doing so makes the play thoroughly modern by revealing ourselves in it, shortcomings and all.

Eric Minton
April 23, 2014

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