Shakespeare’s early play Two Gentlemen of Verona—it may have been his first—isn’t presented very often, although two productions will be running simultaneously this month. Last year the Royal Shakespeare Company put it on the main stage in Stratford-upon-Avon for the first time in 44 years. It’s a rarity that, when it does come around, is often roughed up a bit, and that’s usually to the good. Two Gentlemen can be occasionally wordy and sometimes distasteful, even in the staging by Fiasco Theater Company, which specializes in innovative presentations of the Bard and has fielded a crew of six fine performers who enact multiple roles, play instruments, and sing. (By odd coincidence, a second Two Gents will be presented by the Drilling Company in Bryant Park from May 15-31.)
Proteus (Noah Brody) is certainly one of the least likable heroes in the canon. Having vowed his fidelity to Julia (Jessie Austrian), he leaves for Milan, his devotion dissipates, and he woos Silvia (Emily Young), beloved by his best friend Valentine (Zachary Fine). As if his bad behavior weren’t enough, his climactic repentance strains credibility.
Two Gentlemen is full of plot devices that Shakespeare would develop better in later plays. As in Twelfth Night and As You Like It, there’s a girl who must disguise herself as a boy. Here Julia dons a man’s garb to find Proteus and sets off with her servant Lucetta (Young again). And, as in As You Like It, they end up in a forest. Meanwhile, Valentine is banished by the Duke (Andy Grotelueschen), and he meets up with outlaws, also in the forest. In Milan, Proteus immediately falls for Silvia, a well-born lady. Providing comedy are Speed, the servant to Proteus (Paul L. Coffey, who’s also Silvia’s goofy lothario Thurio), and Launce with his dog, Crab. Yes, if you have seen Two Gents, you’ll remember it’s the one with the dog.
Directors Austrian and Ben Steinfeld have engaged designer Derek McLane to provide whitewashed planks backed by a large black wall on which are pinned letters and white flowers. Indeed, the set echoes the emphasis on words and wordplay that Elizabethans may have enjoyed more than a modern audience will. Young Shakespeare is in love with words, and although the cast handles it skillfully (“O how this spring of love resembleth/The uncertain glory of an April day”), there is also starchy verse and punning that sometimes don’t seem worth the effort. Luckily, Fiasco has judiciously pared much that could have made it unbearable.
Whitney Locher’s breezy summer costumes certainly lift the spirits and provide a distinctive visual style: white linens and lace, with a palette of rose, lilac, oatmeal, and powder blue. The men’s spectators are in luscious combinations: celadon and buff; coral and copper.
The comedy is an unqualified success. Grotelueschen and Fine are delightful. While Launce describes their adventures, Fine reacts with alternate mixtures of guilty looks and puppyish eagerness. He’s so good that perhaps only an animal-rights activist might complain that a real dog wasn’t hired for the job. When Launce discovers Speed asleep on the ground there’s some very funny business with a ball and the panting canine. Grotelueschen is also an authoritative Duke, and the scene in which he leads Valentine into a trap is handled with subtlety. (He adeptly delivers several bawdy jokes that lie hidden on the page.)
But the lovers’ plight is less interesting, and although Brody is a virile, handsome Proteus, the character’s behavior wins him no sympathy as a decent match for Austrian’s spunky Julia. Fiasco has larded the program with quotes from scholars such as Marjorie Garber, W.H. Auden, and Francis Fergusson to explain what Shakespeare intended, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the play remains unsatisfying. Still, this is a thoughtful production and not just for completists. It’s worth a visit.
Fiasco Theater’s Two Gentlemen of Verona runs through June 7 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. There are no performances on May 13 and 21. Tickets may be purchased by visiting www.tfana.org or calling (866) 811-4111.