My Verona's Men

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Written by William Shakespeare Directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld
Fiasco Theater Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
April 24 - June 7, 2015

When Shakespeare is mentioned, one of the first plays to come to mind probably isn't The Two Gentlemen of Verona, an early, comedic work that ends with one of those sudden character reversals common to early modern drama. If it is indeed Shakespeare’s first play, it is interesting to note that he bookended his theatrical career with another play focused on male friendship tested by conflict over a woman, The Two Noble Kinsmen, written in collaboration with John Fletcher. In Gentlemen, that conflict occurs when Proteus (Noah Brody) travels abroad and abandons his oft-sworn love for Julia (Jessie Austrian) in favor of an infatuation with Sylvia (Emily Young), the beloved of Proteus’s bosom friend, Valentine (Zachary Fine). Unfortunately for Valentine, Sylvia's father (Andy Grotelueschen) prefers that she wed the wealthier Thurio (Paul L. Coffey), and betrayal, exile, and a rape threat follow before the couples return to what we are left to assume are their proper configurations.

Fiasco Theater's production does not delve into the potentially troubling implications of some of this material, but rather keeps the proceedings as light as the pastel-bedecked cast and the set, covered in hundreds of artfully arranged sheets of white paper, some crumpled to resemble flowers. Those sheets of paper adorning the set are also letters, forming part of a motif that runs through the production. Written missives consistently provide the means by which the writers’ love and selves are constructed, revised, offered, accepted, and rejected. At one point, leaves of paper becomes the leaves of a forest floor, their red contrasting with the white of the two column-like trees and the papered walls. The program even includes an insert inviting audience members to write their own love letter to a character, writer, or anyone else they choose and leave it with staff afterwards, with selected letters to form part of a display in the lobby.

This kind of playful spirit infuses the entire performance. A winking recognition of what modern audiences might see as the MRA-lite resolution of the Proteus-Valentine plotline does come in giving Julia (and the audience) a clever, cathartic (and hilarious) moment that is as close to a comeuppance as Proteus gets. Two Gentlemen is a production where everyone is having clearly having fun, and that feeling is infectious. The acting, which includes a lot of doubling, is fantastic by everyone involved. It’s interesting to see the teasing affection between Julia and her servant Lucetta (Emily Young, again) echoed later as a tender commiseration between Sylvia and Julia-disguised-as-Sebastian. (Part of the reason for this particular doubling is that Sylvia is basically a non-entity through the first half of the play; the focus remains on the male friends rather than their mutual object of affection.) As servants Launce and Speed, Andy Grotelueschen and Paul L. Coffey get a break from playing nobility to provide some great comic performances, as does Zachary Fine doubling as Crab the dog. When he isn't wearing his dog nose, Fine imbues Valentine with a stolid, unassuming, slightly slow-on-the-uptake integrity that makes Sylvia's father whipping him with a jacket when he foils Valentine and Sylvia's plan to secretly marry seem legitimately violent. Jessie Austrian especially shines, creating a Julia who feels modern, and can be a little silly and over-emotional, but is also plucky, irresistibly endearing, and someone whom the audience wants to root for. The whole thing is lively, fresh, and fun: an experience that feels like it was tailor-made for these early spring days. - Leah Richard and John Ziegler