Just extended through June 20–from Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Theatre in Brooklyn–The Two Gentleman of Verona is not supposed to be a hit. The scholar E.M.W Tillyard has called the play “morally and dramatically monstrous” and most consider Shakespeare’s first effort, penned about 1620, to be immature. What many fail to realize is that it’s supposed to be. Despite centuries of wadded up poetry contending otherwise, this subversive comedy challenges the idea that young men can be experts at much of anything–especially courtly love. Scholar Francis Fergusson agrees: Give the Bard credit "for knowing just how silly his gentlemen would appear. . . . He was making fun of youthful infatuation . . . in order to entertain. . . . "Who are these puerile, young galumphs? Betrayers, would-be rapists, and mindless forgivers, who hand over victims to be married by the transgressors (if there is a fault to Fiasco theatre's excellent, informal production of this seventeenth-century antecedent to Saturday Night Live, it is that even the relatively young actors playing in it seem too old). They're also too smart. They’ve found minimalist style where most see messy chaos—recall Joseph Papp’s Tony-winning 1971 musical (which included a pregnant Julia). They’ve also, surprisingly found feminism. If there is an overall point to all these hormones running amok, it might be that the best men turn out to be women, since they're the ones who know how to be loyal.
The plot is relatively simple: Two young men make their way to the Milanese court and fall in love with the same woman. This allows the comedy a spurned lover, as well as many other elements Shakespeare will make use of in his future writings, such as women dressed as men and especially bad word play (actually here, Fiasco makes sense out of all the punning, so that it does not seem hollow or mindlessly overlong). "In nearly every moment of this play, the various characters wrestle with the notion of how to define and see the self,” write Fiasco’s directors Ben Steinfeld, Jessie Austrian, and Noah Brody. “The young friends and lovers in this story are trying to find out who they are through their friendships and romantic adventures." This is an important recognition, a polite variation on the thought that “kids learn about sex on the streets,” and it lets us work with Shakespeare, instead of seeing the play as less than a masterpiece. By doing this, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is revealed not so much as flawed but as a reflection of embarrassing accuracy. Shakespeare, many fail to recall, was writing for his market—for theatregoers who wanted the stage to be alive–not for a dead faculty lounge. In plays like this one or Titus Andronicus, the Bard had more on his mind than receiving an A.
Derek McLane’s set design is made up of crumbled love letters against black. At the beginning of the show, mingling with the audience, one of the actors was asked whether she wrote any of them. Answering like a sphinx she said: “They are my words, but not in my hand.” You’ll have to go to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, to unravel her layered riddle. The fine actors, dressed in ice cream parlor pastels, are used to working together, most having started together at Brown University. They are: Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Paul E. Coffey, Zachary Fine, Andy Grotelueschen, and Emily Young. The ensemble not only plays multiple parts, they also strum, pick, or bow a guitar, violin, or cello. Other than musical instruments, there are very few props. Even the scene-stealing dog, Crab, offers a unique interpretation. Seeing Shakespeare done around the city often means watching references to Fiasco’s work—many will recall their seminal Cymbeline from 2011. The Winter’s Tale, at the Pearl Theatre, and As You Like It, at Shakespeare in the Park, are both examples that seem indebted to Fiasco’s folk, nineteenth-century style, apparently influenced by children's theatre.
Obviously, the word has gotten out about Fiasco, elegantly playing in Brooklyn's new theatrical hub, which includes the Polonsky, as well as BAM, the Harvey, and the Fisher. There's a good reason for this: The Two Gentlemen of Verona may be the best reclamation of a spurned Shakespearean text America has ever produced.
Visit Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center for tickets: http://www.tfana.org/ .
Press: Bruce Cohen.
© 2015 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.