Exchange the Bad for the Better

The Two Gentlemen of Verona has unjustly been dismissed by most scholars.  Harold Bloom, for instance, calls it “the weakest of all Shakespeare’s comedies.”  But if it doesn’t have the meat of later plays like The Merchant of Venice or All’s Well That Ends Well, it does offer humbler pleasures.  Fiasco, a company that previously mounted amiable if underwhelming productions of Cymbeline and Measure for Measure, now makes a convincing case for this text at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center.  With the exception of a bizarre (and admittedly troubling) ending, Two Gentlemen is not cluttered with complexity, a perfect fit for Fiasco’s genial and streamlined approach.

Proteus (Noah Brody) loves Julia (Jessie Austrian), his best friend Valentine (Zachary Fine) loves Sylvia (Emily Young).  In both cases the love is reciprocated, but when Valentine leaves Verona for Milan and Proteus follows, he finds himself falling in love with Sylvia, too, and therefore plots to thwart his friend’s chances at marriage.  Julia, unable to remain behind alone, follows disguised as a page and soon she and Valentine discover Proteus’ treachery.

In what appears to have become Fiasco’s modus operandi, the actors walk onstage before they are ready to begin the play proper, advising the audience to “talk amongst yourselves” while they set up.  Two visible wings become their backstage, and anyone not performing in a scene watches much like the rest of us, laughing and frowning, occasionally whispering to their neighbor.  The casual atmosphere is fitting, and this Two Gentlemen feels much like a Mozart opera in which no one ever worries that the twisting of events will lead to an unhappy outcome; even at its most high-pitched it remains a merry experience. (Directors Ms. Austrian and Ben Steinfeld have even gone so far as to remove an antisemitic line, replacing “Jew” with “toad.”)

Andy Grotelueschen, Fiasco’s resident clown and one of the strongest classical actors in New York, does an excellent job playing three parts, especially Launce, the servant whose relationship with his dog forms the emotional core of the play.  In its most memorable scene, he recounts all the beatings he has endured while covering for his pet, and he is so successful not only because of his command of physical comedy, but because he imbues Launce with humanity rather than turning him into an animated punchline.  The four leads, meanwhile, are appropriately interchangeable—”I knew him as myself,” Valentine says of his friend—while Mr. Brody rightly refuses to elevate Proteus’ villainousness to the level of a Shylock or Richard; indeed, he seems as confused as anyone to find himself adopting the role of antagonist.

I have to admit that I, too, had written off Two Gentlemen as more curious than interesting, of historical rather than artistic value, a work in which Shakespeare began to tinker with themes and devices that he would later master.  But Fiasco’s revival is a sheer delight, and if the play feels a little more like Beaumarchais than the Bard, there’s really nothing wrong with that.  This much fun can be hard to come by.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona runs through June 20th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.  262 Ashland Place  Brooklyn, NY.  2 hours 5 minutes. One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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