Sunday, May 3, 2015

1 (2015-2016): Review of THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (seen May 1, 2015)

"Shakespeare without Tears"
Stars range from 5-1.

Since the theatre season can roughly be considered to run from May through April, it’s a pleasure to report that my first review of the 2015-2016 season is of the Fiasco Theater’s sweetly charming revival of THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (possibly Shakespeare’s first play), at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in downtown Brooklyn. The production, co-directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, which premiered last year at Washington, D.C.’s Folger Theatre, is in the spirit of those bare-boned interpretations of Shakespeare (like the Peter Sarsgaard HAMLET now at the CSC) in which a minimal number of actors (six in this instance) play all the roles, only the most essential props are employed, the actors wear some familiar version of modern clothing, and a simplified unit setting is used. In the case of Fiasco, you can add the casting of actors who can also play musical instruments and sing.
From left: Zachary Fine, Noah Brody. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
A few characters have been clipped in Fiasco’s trimmed-down, briskly paced, two hour and five minute version of this shaky comedy about the permutations of love and friendship. Ms. Austrian plays Julia and Emily Young is Lucetta, her waiting woman. Julia and one of the title’s two gents, Proteus (Noah Brody), are in love. Proteus has a clownish servant (one of Shakespeare's best) named Launce (Andy Grotelueschen), much of whose business is taken up with his dog, Crab. Usually embodied by a real canine, Crab is here played—with a black, clown nose—by Zachary Fine, who also performs Proteus’s best friend, Valentine (Zachary Fine), the other Veronese gentleman.
From left: Emily Young, Jennie Austrian. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
At the insistence of his father, Antonio (Mr. Grotelueschen), who thinks the experience will prove beneficial, Valentine moves with his servant Speed (Paul L. Coffey) from Verona to Milan, where Valentine falls in love with Sylvia (Ms. Young), daughter of the Duke (Mr. Grotelueschen). Proteus follows Valentine to Milan, falls in love at first sight with Sylvia, and turns traitor to his friend, pulling low tricks to win Sylvia, not only from Valentine, but from another suitor, the foolish but wealthy Thurio (Mr. Coffey), the Duke’s choice. Julia, meanwhile, dresses as a boy, Sebastian, to follow the unfaithful Proteus (whose name implies his changefulness), and, following an adventure in the woods with Outlaws (Mr. Grotelueschen, Ms. Young, and Mr. Brody), the play concludes with what many find its biggest weaknesses—Valentine’s instant forgiveness of his treacherous friend, his offer to give the uncomplaining Sylvia to Proteus (as if she were a piece of property), and the reconciliation of Proteus with the girl he so callously abandoned. The knowing way in which the actors good humoredly manage to gloss over these problems helps deter any cries of foul from disgruntled critics.
From left: Paul L. Coffey, Noah Brody. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Derek McLane’s set consists of a platform of grayish-white planking on which sit two massive pillars, like those of the Elizabethan theatre, with benches at either side where the actors often wait for their next scene. Barely an furniture figures in the action, the floor usually being all that's needed when people sit. Surrounding all and hanging overhead are a black backdrop and canopy to which are attached hundreds of what at first seem floral blossoms but are actually crumpled letters. Various written messages are constantly used, time after time being torn up and strewn about by distressed characters. A program note points out the company’s belief that the play, being about the characters’ exploration of their “selves,” reflects the way in which our early relationships with lovers and friends are drafts of the relationships we will have later in life, “So we crumple up those first attempts and start again.” The letters on the backdrop suggest, perhaps, those early drafts we discard in the process of maturing, although most of us would never know that without being told.  
From left: Zachary Fine, Andy Groteleuschen. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Simple as the set is, it takes on exquisite life under the enchanted lighting of Tim Cryan, which creates an endless spectrum of delicately colored effects. The simplicity of the scenic concept is especially notable late in the play when an autumnal feeling is evoked by both reddish lighting and the tossing of reams of red paper in the air, where, like falling leaves, they drift to the floor and fill the stage with one of the few bold splashes of color the show provides.
From left: Zachary Fine, Paul L. Coffey, Noah Brody, Andy Groteleuschen. Photo: Gerry Goodstein. 
Whitney Locher’s costumes are similarly unaffected, the men in casual, mid-20th-century collegiate gear, a vest here, a v-neck there, everything in pale pastels or beige, while the women wear modest but attractive, form-fitting dresses. Except for when Julia dresses as a boy, a hat, scarf, or other identifying feature allows those who play multiple roles to differentiate one from the other. Appealing as the look is, the persistent tastefulness and minimalism of the costumes eventually fall victim to the law of diminishing returns; one begins to wonder whether, without necessarily providing more elaborate costumes, bolder color choices could not have been made occasionally to heighten visual interest and sharpen the character differences.
From left: Emily Young, Jennie Austrian. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
The actors (who chat casually with the audience before the show begins, and again before the second act) are uniformly appealing; they speak clearly, their motivations are precise, they move well, sing nicely (including a version of the familiar “Who Is Sylvia?”), demonstrate quality musicianship, and manage to express the play’s mostly gentle, if sometimes strained, humor. The cute way Mr. Fine plays Crab, of course, has nothing to do with Shakespearean acting, or with Shakespeare’s intentions, but it serves the production effectively without damaging its mood. My personal favorites among the humans are Mses. Austrian and Young, each of whom offers multiple levels of humor, affection, and strength.
From left: Zachary Fine, Andy Groteleuschen, Emily Young, Paul L.Coffey, Noah Brady. Photo: Gerry Goodstein. 
The most memorable production I’ve ever seen of THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA was the 1971, hippy-oriented, musical version starring Raul Julia (as Proteus) that began at the New York Shakespeare Festival and moved to Broadway. Despite providing the early forms of characters and situations for much of the bard's great work, this is one of Shakespeare’s thinnest plays; Galt McDermott’s score, with lyrics by John Guare, was as much a factor in making show a hit as Shakespeare's plot and whatever dialogue of his remained in Guare and Mel Shapiro's adaptation. The Fiasco’s more orthodox approach to Shakespeare's text brings out deeper values, and while I don’t think it has the makings of a commercial success, it’s perfectly suited to the intimate TFANA environment, where it’s kicking the new season off to a promising start. 

Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Through May 24