Having just had the pleasure of seeing Fiasco Theatre’s brilliant production of Into the Woods with Roundabout Theatre Company, I was very much looking forward to their take on The Two Gentlemen of Verona with Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. I was not disappointed. An utter delight, Fiasco Theatre has achieved a level of accessibility for Shakespeare I have not seen before. The language is Elizabethan, but the execution is pure contemporary high school comedy.
Proteus (Noah Brody) and Valentine (Zachary Fine) are best friends saying goodbye for a while. Valentine is heading to Milan for a job while Proteus stays back to win the hand of Julia (Jessie Austrian). When we meet Julia, she seems slightly unhinged; but in the context of a hormonal teenager it makes sense. Austrian really plays up the duality that exists in every girl’s head: mercurially switching her feelings on and off as it suits her mood, not sure if she wants Proteus or wants him to leave her alone. When it’s decided that, yes, she does love Proteus, an exchange of rings pronounces them engaged before he is also called off to Milan.
Meanwhile in Milan, Valentine has fallen in love with the Duke’s daughter, Sylvia (Emily Young), who loves him back. So now we have two couples happily in love? And it’s only the first act? What could possibly go wrong? Here comes Proteus who, in true gentlemanly fashion, arrives at court and barely lays eyes on Sylvia before falling in love with her too. From that moment on, Proteus monstrously attempts to tear the two lovers apart – not to mention Thurio (Paul L. Coffey), who is actually engaged to Sylvia – while completely forgetting about his own beloved Julia, who is now also on her way to Milan disguised as a man!
I can forgive Shakespeare Proteus’ complete shift in character because, well, young people are often fickle. Also, the language is really clever. Spoken by the Fiasco actors, you can hear every nuance, double entendre, and play on words in the language. Of course, the two servants, Speed (Coffey) and Launce (Andy Grotelueschen), definitely get the lion’s share of the witty lines. Launce, in more of the clown role, shares some funny scenes with his dog Crab (sportingly played by Fine) while Speed exchanges witty repartee with anyone who crosses his path, which is usually Launce.
Directed by Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is luminous and buoyant. There’s a wonderful playfulness to the set (Derek McLane) and lighting design (Tim Cryan), the theme of which is paper. Love notes, valentines, and torn up messages become ubiquitous. The appearance and disappearance of notes by ripping them to shreds literally mirrors the entire backdrop of the stage. When the characters throw leafs of red paper in the air, it rains down on them like rose petals.
In the end, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is less of a romance than it is a bromance. The friendship between Proteus and Valentine takes center stage over the reconciliation between the lovers. It’s somehow more upsetting that Proteus betrays Valentine than that he betrays Julia. Fittingly, when Valentine describes his good friend Proteus to the Duke, his expressions of love are so genuine and so ardent, it is more valentine than any note exchanged on stage.