Two Gentlemen, Their Mistresses, and a Dog
and a Dog
-Theatre Review by Judith Krummeck–
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is generally believed to be Shakespeare’s first play. He based it loosely on a 16th century Spanish bestseller about a young woman, disguised as a boy, who becomes the unwitting emissary for her beloved in his pursuit of another woman. Fiasco Theatre, a New York based ensemble created in 2009 by graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F.A. acting program, presents a vigorous reading of Two Gentlemen at Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. On a bare stage, using few props and minimal costumes, six actor-musicians take on multiple characters – and a dog.
In Shakespeare’s version of the story, Valentine (Zachary Fine) can’t persuade his lovesick friend Proteus (Noah Brody) to join him on a journey to “See the wonders of the world abroad.” Valentine makes his way alone from Verona to Milan, where he quickly falls in love with Silvia (Emily Young). When it comes to getting Proteus out of the house, his father (Andy Grotelueschen) proves more persuasive. Proteus is soon sent to Milan and he is forced to take heartfelt leave of his beloved Julia (Jessie Austrian). The painful separation is soon forgotten, however, as soon as Proteus sets eyes on Valentine’s beloved Silvia. “Even as one heat another heat expels / or as one nail by strength drives out another, / So the remembrance of my former love / Is by a newer object quite forgotten,” the love struck Proteus exclaims, setting the wheels of the plot in motion.
Shakespeare tries out many of his familiar themes in this early play. In the same way that Romeo, initially sick for love of Rosaline, instantly transfers his affections to Juliet when he sees her, so too Proteus’s love for Julia is quickly supplanted by his besotted feelings for Silvia. In no less than seven of Shakespeare’s plays, women dress up as males; in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice it forms an essential part of the plot. Two Gentlemen of Verona lays the groundwork for this when Julia follows Proteus to Milan, dressed as a boy. Just as Viola (disguised as Cesario) must woo Olivia on behalf of Orsino in Twelfth Night, so Julia woos Silvia for Proteus in Two Gentlemen.
The most famous of Shakespeare’s “mechanicals” are found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but, even in his tragedies, the playwright masterfully utilizes comic characters to lighten the tone and change the pace. Shakespeare experiments wonderfully with this device in Two Gentlemen. Aside from the bantering between Speed “a clownish servant to Valentine” (Paul L. Coffey), and Launce “the like to Proteus” (one of several parts played by Andy Grotelueschen), there is Launce’s dog named Crab. Who would have thought of having the romantic lead doubling as a dog? Zachary Fine accomplishes this feat to brilliant effect. His costume is completed by a black clown’s nose, and he uncannily portrays the physical embodiment of doglike devotion with some perfectly modulated non-verbal asides to the audience.
Jessie Austrian, who plays Julia with an all-out abandon that would do Cate Blanchett proud, is one of Fiasco Theater’s co-artistic directors and founders. She shared directing duties on Two Gentlemen with fellow co-artistic director and founder, Ben Steinfeld. Austrian’s fiancé, Noah Brody, another co-artistic director and founder, has the difficult task of making Proteus not only believable, but also likeable, given his egregious betrayal of both Julia and Valentine. He manages to pull off both.
Shakespeare’s earliest play is not easy to perform nor is the script a seamless creation. Without giving away too much of the plot, Valentine’s forgiveness of Proteus seems extraordinarily far-fetched. Whether this is due to the inexperience of a young playwright, or due to the culture of his time—when demarcations between filial love and homoerotic love were not as clear-cut (think of Antonio’s love for Sebastian in Twelfth Night, or Mercutio’s love for Romeo)—is a question that has vexed Shakespeare lovers for centuries. Attend the Fiasco Theatre’s inventive production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at Folger Theatre, and you will be able judge for yourself whether they have tackled this question successfully. The show is playing until June 1st. It’s a delightful production with an outstanding cast, the perfect intro to a summer of Shakespeare.
Post Photos Courtesy of http://www.folger.edu