Shakespeare's best romances, whether they end in tears or in double weddings, start off fraught with comic possibility, and most stagings of The Two Gentlemen of Verona are intensely aware of that fact. Director Hamilton Clancy and The Drilling Company's production of one of the Bard's earliest plays is properly sensitive to said comedic potential, even in the somewhat chaotic environs of Bryant Park on a weekend afternoon. The play seems particularly popular this season, with an acclaimed production by Fiasco Theater running concurrently with this one. A three-storied stage serves as a set for both Cafe Verona and the Emperor's Court in Milan; Shakespeare's two gentlemen gravitate between the two cities, just as their inconstant affections flit from one girl to the next.
An ambitious Proteus (Brian Patrick Murphy) woos a particularly fearless Julia (Tori Ernst) in Verona, while his friend Valentine (Andrew Gombas)—Shakespeare’s requisite love-mocker—goes to Milan to seek his fortunes. Both Valentine and Proteus fall hard and fast for Silvia (Kristin Piacentile), and later deal with the oncoming storm of nascent comedic devices dear to the Bard’s heart: lost love letters, cross-dressing women and fickle men. The unsurpassed star of the show is Chewy-Bear Aquino, the winsome little dog that plays Crab; he almost outperforms his master, Launce (Eric Paterniani).
The comic performances are reliably humorous, with a fantastic Speed (Drew Valins) and near-incoherently accented Launce, played to perfection by Eric Paterniani. Bryant Park on a spring evening is anarchic, and the players strive to hold our attention; Brian Patrick Murphy struts about and gestures like a Mean Streets antihero (Mr. Murphy is involved in Mr. Scorsese’s upcoming Rock N’ Roll project), while Julia and her wonderfully sassy best friend Lucetta (Lauriel Friedman) engage in girlish banter and the odd catfight.
But there’s a reason why The Two Gentlemen of Verona isn’t performed on stage as much as other works in the Bard’s canon. Lines of love and longing that would later become peerless in Shakespeare’s romances are rendered lukewarm here, barring perhaps Valentine’s famous love monologue to Silvia. The words utterly redeem Clancy’s bumbling-in-love Valentine and give him the deep solemnity of a lovelorn, despairing man torn from his betrothed: "What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?"
Shakespeare’s early play depends greatly on the manic expressiveness and movement of its actors (it was performed with restless gusto by a Royal Shakespeare Company revival of Two Gentlemen last year), but Clancy otherwise mutes what might have been rip-roaring situational comedy in favor of schmaltzy music cues and no-fear-Shakespeare every man references (“I am one that am nourished by my/ victuals: Chipotle!” and “stop mewling like a bum on the L train!”). At times, there seemed to be more humor in the glances of passers-by eyeing the makeshift stage with the wary curiosity of watching a street performance and hearing Old English simultaneously.
But the undisputed strength of this Two Gentlemen production rests on this theme: the easy forgiveness of friends. The neat double wedding that concludes this Elizabethan comedy could just as easily have been a funeral: when Proteus begs Valentine’s forgiveness for trying to steal his girl, there is a moment of unyielding hatred in Gombas’ raised fist, and the audience wonders (as it often does in Shakespeare’s dark comedies) if Valentine will go the way of Vergil’s Aeneas and strike down his mercy-seeking enemy. Instead, he lets his hand fall and embraces his best friend in forgiveness, as does Julia, who has a startlingly pre-feminist line: "it is the lesser blot, modesty finds/women to change their shapes than men their minds."
The set seems deliberately makeshift, with three raised platforms serving as a restaurant, an emperor’s court and an outlaw’s hideout (appropriately called Governor’s Island, in keeping with the production’s New York flavor) but set designer Jennifer Varbalow makes the festive Little Italy habitat quite endearing. The setting itself is unabashedly Italian, and Dean Martin’s lilting voice is a constant refrain between scene changes. Perhaps "That's Amore" too neatly captures the senseless scrappiness of love; it’s one of those songs that play on a loop in your head. So if you're looking for that elusive alliance between Shakespeare and New York City, this season's Bryant Park Shakespeare might just serve you with a decent caper through Little Italy and a few laughs for good measure.
Presented by Bryant Park Shakespeare, The Drilling Company's production of Two Gentlemen of Verona ran from May 15- 31 at Bryant Park (6th Ave. at 42nd St.) in Manhattan. For more information, call 212-873-9050 or visit www.shakespeareintheparkinglot.com and www.drillingcompany.org.