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Theatre in Review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Fiasco Theater/Theatre for a New Audience)

Noah Brody. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

With its compact, intimate staging, Fiasco Theater has managed the near-impossible: The company has rescued The Two Gentleman of Verona.

At the intermission of the performance I attended, the woman sitting next to me said to her husband, in some wonderment, "I've never seen it before." There's a reason for that. While not as difficult as such works as Troilus and Cressida or Pericles, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is quite possibly Shakespeare's least appealing comedy. The plotting is remarkably slapdash and hinges on characters being transformed from good to evil and back again in a couple of lines. This would be all right -- Shakespeare pulls off such changes of heart all the time -- if the characters were more compelling. But in most productions they come off as mechanical creations, little puppets who exist only to be arranged into different dramatic patterns until the preordained happy finale finally arrives.

The two gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine; lifelong friends, they are separated when Valentine heads off to the court of Milan in search of better prospects. Proteus stays at home, where he woos the lovely Julia -- until his father insists he go to Milan, too. Arriving there, he falls hard and fast for Sylvia -- and never mind that she and Valentine are enamored of each other. Proteus immediately betrays Valentine, getting him banished from the court. While Proteus struggles to win over Sylvia, Julia shows up disguised as a boy, allowing her to gaze in horror at her lover's bad behavior. It all gets sorted out in the end, with Proteus undergoing an instant reform that is no more believable than his swift descent into villainy.

The Fiasco production, directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, does several things right. First, the text has been pruned to little more than two hours, which means we don't have to endure the plot's absurdities for too long. Second, the cast has been reduced to six actors, some of whom double, all of whom establish a friendly interaction with the audience that never seems forced. Indeed, a sunny summertime mood prevails over the entire proceedings, which helps to put the plot's contortions in perspective. This is a play about young people hoist on the petard of their unruly emotions; if they behave in a ridiculous or even reprehensible manner, it is clearly seen as a steppingstone on the road to maturity.

Best of all, the entire cast speaks the text with such crystal clarity that suddenly one starts to notice the gems contained in the text. I was especially taken with Valentine's speech doing away with Proteus' notion of romance: "To be in love, where scorn is bought with groans/Coy looks with hear-sore sighs, one fading moment's mirth/With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights/If haply won, perhaps a hapless gain/If lost, why then a grievous labor won/However, but a folly bought with wit/Or else a wit by folly vanquished." I've seen Two Gentlemen more than once, but those words never jumped out at me before.

The staging is full of delightful touches: Emily Young, as Lucetta, the maid, operatically dropping a love letter from Proteus in front of Julia (Austrian); Julia, who in Austrian's portrayal is more than a little neurotic, ripping the letter to shreds and then kissing each tiny piece; the way Thurio (Andy Grotelueschen), one of Sylvia's suitors, responds to his name with a little two-step and a bow; Sylvia (Young again), fed up with Proteus' cloying attentions, pounding her head in frustration against one of the theatre's structural beams. In addition, the musical interludes, including "Who is Sylvia?," are lovely indeed. The only bits of business that get a little too cute and self-congratulatory involve Launce, the servant, and his dog, Crab. Usually played by a real pooch, Crab is here played by Zachary Fine, with a little black nose attached to his face. This allows the actor to react to everything Launce says, even interpolating a line or two, an effort at gilding the lily that reduces, rather than increases, the fun in their scenes together.

Still, Fine is excellent as the cynic-turned-lover Valentine and Noah Brody does more to gloss over the contradictions in Proteus' character than any other actor in my experience. Austrian is fetching in male drag and most sympathetic when, to her fury, she finds out what her lover has been up to. Paul L. Coffey is a source of steady amusement as Speed, another plainspoken servant.

For a play that hinges almost totally on the delivery of clandestine love letters, the set designer, Derek McLane, has created a surround consisting of hundreds of crumpled-up missives attached to netting. These are treated with a series of lush color washes by the lighting designer, Tim Cryan. Whitney Locher's costumes provide light summery dresses for the ladies, and khakis and pastel polo shirts for the men, complete with color-matched saddle shoes. The cast members play a variety of stringed instruments, a conceit for the scene in which all four men turn troubadour to sing about the vagaries of love.

It's a funny thing to say that the best thing about a production is its sense of proportion, but credit the Fiasco team with taking a sometimes lumbering romantic comedy, resizing it, and casting a spell of charm on it. The Two Gentlemen of Verona isn't a knockout series of big laughs, but it will keep you smiling for the full length of its running time -- and for some time to come, I'll warrant. -- David Barbour

(5 May 2015)

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