Friday, May 8, 2015

Review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Fiasco/TFANA)

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
playwright  William Shakespeare
company  Fiasco Theater
theater  Theater for a New Audience

Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Zachary Fine, Andy Grotelueschen, and Emily Young

directors  Jessie Austrian & Ben Steinfeld
costumes  Whitney Locher
set  Derek McLane
lights  Tim Cryan
props  Andy Diaz

Zachary Fine (Crab) and Andy Grotelueschen (Launce)
in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Fiasco’s Two Gentlemen of Verona is a great, rare pleasure, especially for a mad Shakespearean like me: a superb staging of minor Will. I’d never seen 2 Gents and only read it once, back in the mid-’90s. There’s a reason it’s mostly known as the one with a dog. Its plot devices are familiar—a cross-dressing heroine, rings and letters, and a retreat to the forest that loosens inhibitions enough to resolve love’s confusions—but they’re embryonic in form. It's also got a nasty finale, with an attempted rape that's pardoned way too quickly. 2 Gents is easily the worst of Shak trilogy of apprentice comedies (the other two are Shrew and Comedy of Errors), but it points more obviously towards his future as a playwright. The play is an artificial tale of courtly love, Shak’s comic mode for the rest of his career.

Of course it can’t stand up to comparison with his later iterations; 2 Gents is better taken on its own terms or not at all. So Fiasco does that, simply, directly, and brilliantly. Since the verse is obviously written by a rookie, they deliver it in a prosy cadence, focusing on the sentence rather than the line or the idea. The comedians don’t attempt to wring laughs from the quibbles, while the romantics round and shape their roles by adding individuality to the types.

Of the titular gentlemen, Zachary Fine gives the dudley-do-right Valentine a bit of a thick skull, which smooths his friendship with Noah Brody’s scheming Proteus. The women outdo the men (as they should in Shakespearean comedy). As the girl-in-drag Julia, Jessie Austrian shows a great comic/romantic gift as a smart nitwit, and anchors the romantic plot with her screwball charm. Emily Young gives the evening its depth, as the actor who best turns the verse into spoken thought. Her Silvia is a Renaissance socialite who almost instinctively uses her wit to express herself and beguile others.

Including me. Take this bit of courtly courting, where Valentine has written her a love letter:


No madam; so it stead you, I will write
(Please you command) a thousand times as much.
And yet—

A pretty period. Well, I guess the sequel;
And yet I will not name it; and yet I care not.
And yet take this again; and yet I thank you,
Meaning henceforth to trouble you no more.

Silvia’s reply is famously tricky to play, since it’s so obviously artificial. But Young gives each “and yet” a turn, like she’s articulating a particularly complex thought in particularly artful fashion while steering to her point: a polite rejection.

Emily Young (Silvia) & Jessie Austrian (Julia)
in The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Finally, there’s the clown and his dog (which, incidentally, Bernard Shaw named as the best character in Shakespeare; unjust, but he is the best in 2 Gents). Andy Grotelueschen, the company’s shaggy comedian, recounts the escapades of Crab, played by Zachary Fine in black clown nose, idiot grin, and Harpo-like silence. The dog’s a dope, the master’s not much brighter, and they inevitably steal the show.

For 2 Gents’s set, Derek McLane suggests both court and forest by covering the walls and ceiling in cherry blossoms and crumpled pink paper. To break up the stage a bit, two neoclassical columns metamorphose into trees. It has the same formal beauty and artifice as the play itself. 2 Gents is a happy collaboration with Theater for a New Audience. TFANA’s home, the year-old Polonsky Shakespeare Center, has proved to be a great space for Shak—comfortable and spacious, intimate yet communal. Fiasco looks to be in its natural element. The cast remains onstage throughout, playing string instruments and donning bits of costume or just enjoying the show with the audience. All this helps the audience to swallow the improbable and fantastical turns of Shakespearean plot. This 2 Gents is a gem, all the better for being smaller and less familiar than most Shakespeare.

Zachary Fine, Paul L. Coffey, & Andy Grotelueschen
with Noah Brody (Proteus) in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Fiasco's Two Gentlemen of Verona runs April 24 thru May 24 at 262 Ashland Place
photos: Gerry Goodstein

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