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Two Gentlemen of Verona
Fiasco, founded by alums from Brown University and Trinity Rep's acting programs, has become a synonym for theatrical inventiveness. They first strutted their Shakespearean stuff in Twelfth Night, later followed by Cymbeline, and Measure for Measure. With their new iteration of Two Gentlemen the 6-member troupe prove once again that they sure know how to move a play along.
Two Gentlemen is hardly the Bard's masterpiece and bears all the flaws of an apprentice work. Indeed many a scholar has wagged a finger at its most famous gaffe in Act 1, where Valentine travels between the inland cities of Verona and Milan by boat ("Once more, adieu! My father at the road/ Expects my coming, there to see me shipped."). While this geographic slip may be the most conspicuous of the play's incongruities, it has many other dramaturgical tell-tales that reveal that the Bard was still wet behind the ears as a playwright. In any case, the program neatly tucks in a round-up of what renowned critics have said about this early play over the years, and it's well worth a read.
Fiasco, of course, takes the play's demerits in stride and succeeds by an economic and light handling of the plotline. In a nutshell, Two Gentlemen is about what happens when two swains, Valentine and Proteus, fall in love with the same woman, Sylvia. This love triangle is complicated by the fact that the fickle (and aptly-named) Proteus has already pledged his heart to Julia.
The plot thematically borrows from the biblical parable of "The Prodigal Son" and also taps into the dramatic tension between male friendship and heterosexual love. In fact, the notorious near-rape scene at play's close, where Proteus sexually forces himself upon Sylvia but is halted by Valentine who is watching nearby and then forgives his (repentant) friend, illustratesmale friendship trumping over romantic love.
This is an ensemble acting effort where nobody is hogging the stage or trying to upstage another actor. Jessie Austrian (Julia), Noah Brody (Proteus), Paul L. Coffey (Speed), Zachary Fine (Valentine), Andy Grotelueschen (Launce/Duke/Antonio), and Emily Young (Lucetta/Sylvia) are all in fine fettle here. A special shout out to Fine who terrifically plays the dog Crab simply by insinuating himself into a dog's posture. As his master, Lance is cataloguing and instancing Crab's canine behaviors (including "stealing a capon's leg" and urinating at the Duke's dinner), Fine comically adlibs in a stage whisper: "It's true, it's true, it's true!"--and other spot-on remarks.
Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld's co-direction keeps all the scenes moving forward briskly, only pausing the action now and then for one of the lyrical songs (including the famous "Who is Sylvia?" that Shubert would later score). They have morphed the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage into an arena where characters find and lose love, only to re-find it again with more clear-eyed understanding. The action isn't limited to the stage either but expands it into all levels of the seating area. In fact, audience members can expect to have individual actors at times planted right next to their seats to perform their speech or song. It makes for a totally immersive theatrical experience.
Derek McLane's semi-abstract set has the stage walls and ceiling covered with a plethora of crinkled-up material. While I was a whiff puzzled over what to make of it at first, I eventually accepted it as the rough equivalent of foliage on the cusp of blooming or symbolic love letters (six letters are delivered, or mis-delivered, during the play's proceedings). Props are sparse but all serve the dramatic moment: There are letters galore (with one spring shower of love letters in Act 2!), rings for would-be lovers Julia and Proteus to exchange, a rope ladder for Valentine to ascend to Sylvia's "window." There's also a guitar and other musical instruments for serenades.
Tim Cryan's chameleon lighting design casts multiple hues over the stage to evoke romantic or not-so-romantic moods. Whitney Locher's modern costumes are dapper and delicious, right down to the colorful two-toned classic bucks worn by the well-to-do principals. Each costume suits the the character.
Fiasco is a unique New York-based company whose mission is "to offer dynamic, joyful, actor-driven productions of classic and new plays," Though other companies may outdo Fiasco in feats of rhetoric (their Shakespearean chops are competent but far from satin-smooth), nobody holds a light to their spontaneity and their charming way of retooling works from the Bard's canon as well as their just closed pared-down staging of Into the Woods This breezy new production of Two Gentlemen in Brooklyn insures their standing in the New York theater community.