Theater Review: ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’

Shakespeare's first draft of love

NEW YORK—”The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is one of William Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and it shows. The piece lacks much of the texture, depth, and nuances evident in his later efforts. Fortunately, Fiasco Theater’s sprightly and engaging presentation at Theatre for a New Audience is quite a joy to watch.

Valentine (Zachary Fine) and Proteus (Noah Brody), the two gentlemen of the title and best friends since childhood, have come to a parting of the ways. Valentine prepares to leave for the court at Milan, while Proteus stays behind to woo his beloved Julia (Jessie Austrian).

Just as Proteus’s and Julia’s passion for one another begins to grow, his father (Andy Grotelueschen) orders him to join Valentine in Milan. The young man’s joy at seeing his friend again is tempered by the despair of being parted from his love.

Upon arriving in Milan, Proteus finds that Valentine, who had previously dismissed any idea of romance, has now succumbed to love. His object of desire is Sylvia (Emily Young), daughter of the Duke of Milan (Grotelueschen).

Fiasco Theater solves many of the script’s weaknesses by focusing on the versatility of the actors.
Yet once Proteus himself sees Sylvia, he too falls madly in love with her. After an all-too-brief struggle with his conscience, he not only succeeds in forgetting his love for Julia, but also plots to sabotage Valentine’s budding romance with Sylvia. Proteus believes that once his friend is out of the picture, the field will be clear for him.

(L–R) Zachary-Fine and Noah-Brody play the two gentlemen of Verona in one of Shakespeare's earliest works. (Gerry Goodstein)
(L–R) Zachary Fine as Valentine  and Noah Brody as Proteus play the two gentlemen of Verona in one of Shakespeare’s earliest works. (Gerry Goodstein)

In a plot that could easily be played as tragedy, one can clearly see evidence of the various comic and narrative devices Shakespeare would continually use. These include situations such as a woman dressing up as a man and servants often being wiser than their masters, as well as the themes of redemption, forgiveness, and how love can make one do rather foolish things.

The implementation of wise servants and the theme of redemption are not at all convincing here, especially in today’s cynical age. This is a likely reason that “Two Gentleman” is not performed all that often.

Fiasco solves many of the script’s weaknesses by focusing on the versatility of the actors. The cast of six plays numerous roles, often changing characters at the drop of a hat. The company thus takes this somewhat lightweight vehicle and puts their distinctive stamp on it—one that’s very enjoyable indeed.

(L–R) Emily Young and Jessie Austrian play the lady-love's of the two gents, and other roles as well. One of the production's highlights is its versatile cast, which take on many roles. (Gerry Goodstein)
(L–R) Emily Young and Jessie Austrian play the ladyloves of the two gents and other roles as well. One of the production’s highlights is its versatile cast, which takes on many roles. (Gerry Goodstein)

Austrian and Young are particularly good in this regard. Their characters are quite collected one moment and screaming in frustration or hysteria the next.

In another good turn, the cast also doubles as the orchestra, offering various forms of musical accompaniment when not directly involved in the telling of the story.

It should also be noted that Fine makes one of the cutest and woebegone-looking stage dogs in recent memory.

The overall emphasis on humor allows the audience to go along for the ride. And, via that enjoyment, we skip over some plot devices that don’t really work, especially in regard to the ending.

Yet “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” offers an interesting road map of ideas and concepts that Shakespeare would revisit and refine during his career. Since it’s difficult to fully appreciate how far an artist has come without seeing how that artist began, this play—and particularly this production—is definitely worth seeing.

Also in the cast is Paul L. Coffey.

‘The Two Gentleman of Verona’
Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Tickets: 212-229-2819 or www.tfana.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: June 7

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.

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