Fiasco Theater takes on Shakespeare’s first play at Theatre for a New Audience.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is, by scholarly accounts, likely Shakespeare's first play. And like so many of his early plays, this comedy is over-the-top, at times hilarious and at others completely bizarre. But when two gentlemen from Verona travel to Milan in search of honor for their families, only to fall for the same woman, no trick is too dirty to take one's erstwhile friend out of contention.
Fiasco Theater has taken on a unique theatrical challenge, to make this simple and often absurd story as engaging and relatable as it is humorous. With a cast of only six actors who are almost always onstage and an unchanging set, co-directors Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld have stripped the show to its most basic elements to let the humor and fundamental humanity of the play shine through.
Dear friends Valentine and Proteus are separated when Valentine's father sends him to court in Milan to improve the family's honor, while Proteus remains in Verona to woo his love Julia. When he arrives in Milan, Valentine falls for the Duke's daughter Sylvia, though her father intends for her to marry Thurio. But everything is thrown awry when Proteus' father sends him to Milan as well, where the young gentleman promptly forgets about his betrothed and also becomes infatuated with Sylvia, betraying his close friend and his former love in a vainglorious attempt to win her heart.
But Sylvia is having none of it, and neither is Julia, who arrives in Milan dressed as a boy to find her lover and soon ends up charged with wooing Sylvia on his behalf. When the women meet and recognize the absurdity of Proteus' suit, an unlikely alliance is formed, and into the woods they go in search of Sylvia's faithful lover, banished from the city but even so a far more promising choice than Proteus. Meanwhile, the servants' pageant of romances and loyalties proves even more ridiculous.
Part of the fun of seeing one of Shakespeare's early plays is getting to witness moments that become iconic elements of his later works: a woman dresses as a boy to get close to the man she loves only to become his ring bearer to another lady he loves (Twelfth Night), a couple's plan to run away into the forest and elope is thwarted by another man who seeks the lady's hand after having betrayed his faithful lover (A Midsummer Night's Dream) and even the classic Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. In such a patchwork plot, there are no pretensions of realism; this is a world of constantly heightened emotion, where the pursuit of love is always paramount.
Fiasco Theater's production revels in the absurdist extremes of the play, from Julia's melodramatic shredding of Proteus' letter to the Duke discovering the ladder Valentine intends to use to elope with his daughter under the young man's jacket. But by far the most engaging characters in this performance are the servants, Speed (Paul L. Coffey) and Launce (Andy Grotelueschen), whose exasperation for their masters' complicated schemes is exceeded only by the nonsensicality of their own romantic interests. Meanwhile, the truest love of all is that between Launce and his dog, Crab, exquisitely played by Zachary Fine.
However, many of the great comedic scenes are in fact between the two women, such as when Julia (Jessie Austrian), disguised as Sebastian, relates her own heartbreak at Proteus' betrayal to her betrothed's new love, Sylvia (Emily Young), coming up with ever more elaborate excuses for why she would know such a thing. The two actresses toe the line between sympathetic and shrill, making for an entertaining if somewhat inconsistent performance. Zachary Fine as the earnest Valentine and Noah Brody as duplicitous Proteus round out the cast as the men Julia and Sylvia are fighting for, though even they are not always sure why.
The actors start the play portraying their characters relatively as written, but by the end have begun editorializing on some of Shakespeare's strangest moments, from the kidnapping forest bandits to Valentine's forgiveness of Proteus' overwhelming crimes. These simple unspoken glances and mouthed words expand upon what the text allows for the young lovers, proving the value in putting on the Bard's lesser-known works. And if the actors' facades do break every so often, devolving into laughter at a particularly overwhelming moment, audiences will still be laughing along with them all the way.
This production makes great use of music, both atmospheric and in-world—the men's song-and-dance number featuring mandolin and ukulele along with little choreographed steps is particularly impressive—though more of it would have certainly been appreciated. Likewise, the beautiful set consisting of hundreds of lovers' letters blossoming into flower adds a lovely, symbolic element into this play where love notes play such a crucial role, while also proving versatile through a colorful and often changing lighting design.
Though only somewhat successful in their attempts to erase the distinction between actor, character and audience, the cast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona does manage to put on a charming and immensely entertaining performance that goes far beyond what the text may have imagined. Often the simplest productions can prove the most gripping, and Fiasco Theater's take on Shakespeare's first comedy is no exception. A potent blend of amusing and heartfelt, the play is a great choice for audiences familiar with the standard Shakespearean comedies and ready to see how much more the Bard has in store.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona plays at Theatre for a New Audience through May 24.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.