Crumpled love letters adorn the backdrop of the relatively bare set of the newly constructed Polonsky Shakespeare Center, conjuring up images of foliage and flowers. And just like spring breathes life back into the earth, Theater for a New Audience’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, devised and performed by the Fiasco Theater Company, breathes new life into the classic play. One of William Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Two Gentlemen is paced like a romantic comedy, featuring much of the farce that characterizes the Bard’s later writings. Many of the situations introduced in Two Gentlemen are expanded and refined in Shakespeare’s subsequent works: unwanted marriage (Romeo and Juliet), notions of “blind love” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), cross-dressing (As You Like It and Twelfth Night), and helpful locals who guide the plot (Pericles). These plot devices liven up the experience for both the seasoned Shakespeare enthusiast and newcomer alike.
That being said, many scholars find Two Gentlemen of Verona to be one of his worst, lacking the complex character development and analysis that is present in so much of Shakespeare’s other work. On a first read, one notices that the characters are foils, the plot is outlandish, and the prose is excessively flowery. The rhetorical banter, while amusing, is nowhere near the level of wordplay Shakespeare grew capable of later in his career. The play resembles the very “morality plays” that Shakespeare famously departed from.
And yet, in Fiasco’s new production, the stage comes to life. Limiting the cast to six actors, the ensemble’s energy is explosive and exciting. Focusing on the better parts of the play, they weave together a story of love, deceit, and soul-searching. The tale revolves around Proteus and Valentine (the titular gentlemen), two best friends whose only disagreement is their views on love: Proteus thinks it wonderful, while Valentine thinks it to be irrational. The play opens with Valentine departing for Milan at his father’s wishes, while Proteus stays with his girlfriend Julia. In Milan, Valentine, despite his opinions regarding affection, falls in love with Sylvia. And when Proteus, after becoming engaged to his girlfriend and visiting the court in Milan, begins to grow fond of Sylvia as well. And so the plot unfolds.
The group grapples with many of the flaws in the text by exposing and mocking them. Two Gentlemen of Verona is a notoriously misogynistic play, with lengthy dialogues during which characters remarks regarding women’s chief virtue (they determine wealth). Lucetta, Julia’s maid, is introduced to the audience with her line, “Please you repeat their names, I’ll show my mind; According to my shallow simple skill.” By making the jokes at the expense of those espousing the sexism, the group turns the tables, and brings a contemporary interpretation for an incredibly neglected play.
The bottom line: A witty, humorous, and entertaining version of an otherwise mediocre play, Two Gentlemen of Verona pleases and delights. Starring Zachary Fine, Andy Grotelueschen, Emily Young, Jessie Austrian, Paul L. Coffey, and Noah Brody, and directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, the play is on show at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Forte Greene, Brooklyn, through June 20th. Both well versed Shakespeareans and strangers to his work can take pleasure in this light and well-intentioned comedy.