Start with Shakespeare. Add some very clever dramaturgy, cut a few characters, and incorporate a gifted group of artists and you have a magical night in the theatre. The D.C. debut of Fiasco Theater’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a delight. The astonishing success of Fiasco Theatre, a New York theater company created by graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F. A. acting program, is richly deserved. Kudos to Janet Griffin, Folger Theatre’s Artistic Producer, for welcoming this highly talented ensemble to the District.
Jessie Austrian(Julia/Co-Director) has said, “Legend has it the word ‘fiasco’ was first used to describe commedia dell’ arte performances that went horribly (and hilariously) wrong. In those instances the performer would have to ‘fare fiasco’ or ‘make a bottle.’ ‘In other words, ‘You’re buying!’ While we hope to avoid on-stage disasters, we do believe that it is only when artists are brave enough to risk a fiasco that the possibility exists of creating something special.” (Jessie Austrian, Co-Artistic Director and Co-Founder, in an interview with Joel Markowitz, DCMTA, 4/11/14).
In Two Gentlemen they have taken a flawed, early play of Shakespeare’s and turned it into a paean to love, lost, found, crazy, and…crazier. And then there’s the dog. Did I mention the dog? It’s played by an actor, Zachary Fine, who also plays Valentine. This particular dog, Crab, is so full of himself and so pleased with his innate dog-ness that the hysterical frustration of his owner, Lance (Andy Grotelueschen) passes almost unnoticed. At times, the dog appears to be the sanest character on the stage. And that, under the circumstances, is quite a compliment.
Noah Brady (Proteus) has said: “Ever felt mastered by your passions? You can relate to Two Gents. Ever feel like the servant of your passion, or jealousy or insecurity and find yourself doing and saying things that seem not like yourself? You can relate to Two Gents. Ever cheated or been cheated on? You can relate to Two Gents.” (Noah Brody, Co-Artistic Director and Co-Founder, in an interview with Joel Markowitz, DCMTA, 4/19/14).
The play, one of Shakespeare’s early comedies, is about two friends, Proteus (Noah Brady) and Valentine (Zachary Fine) who fall in love with the same woman, Silvia (Emily Young). To complicate matters, Proteus is already more or less engaged to Julia (Jessie Austrian) who follows Proteus in male attire, only to be enlisted by him to assist in his courtship of Silvia. Valentine is banished by Silvia’s disapproving father, the Duke (Andy Grotelueschen), who wants her to marry the rich but unappealing Thurio (Paul L. Coffey). There is tearing up of letters, re-assembling of letters, rope ladders, exchanging of rings, serenading, outlaws, and a forest.
James Kronzer’s set design is simple, but full of charm. The costumes by Whitney Locher and Lighting Design by Tim Cryan have the same fresh, beautifully nuanced quality as the production as a whole. The music, with musical direction by Ben Steinfeld, is well-integrated into the story, lovely and evocative.
The servants are among the most intelligent and witty characters in the play. Lance (Andy Grotelueschen) and his dog Crab (Zachary Fine) have a unique relationship in which Lance’s devotion to Crab leads him to take the blame for Crab’s many misdeeds. Crab, utterly ungrateful, is more interested in by-play with the audience. Speed (Paul L. Coffey) is often one step ahead of the other characters, but this quality seems to do nothing but get him in trouble. Lucetta (Emily Young) is equally more in touch with reality than her mistress Julia (although that’s not saying much).
The Two Gentlemen of Verona has traditionally been viewed as one of the weakest of Shakespeare’s early comedies. The caddish behavior of Proteus, one of the two romantic leads, has never endeared him to audiences. Quiller-Couch wrote, “One’s impulse is to remark that there are, by this time, no gentlemen in Verona.” (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, ed., Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson, Cambridge, 1921, quoted in Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy, by David Daniell, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, Stanley Wells, ed., Cambridge University Press, 1992.) Daniell cites uncertainty about where the play is set, internal contradictions, loose-ends in the plot and (noted by many critics) an implausible ending. (Daniell, Shakespeare Studies, 1992.) Harold Bloom suggests at one point that when Valentine offers Silvia to Proteus, she should whack him with a piece of wood. (Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, 1998.) Others have suggested that the title, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is meant to be tongue in cheek. (Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1, The University of Chicago Press, 1951.)
Angela Pitt notes in an essay Strong Women Prevail in Shakespeare’s Comedies, William Shakespeare, Readings on the Comedies, Greenhaven Press, 1997), that the play contains “[a]ll the stage-tricks of the comic and romantic drama of Western Europe…the window and balcony, the inevitable serenade, the rope-ladder… outlaws, and a forest.” (Pitt, Greenhaven Press, 1997.) “A raid on the masculine wardrobe” and clowns, she continues: all these conventions did not start with Shakespeare, but we think of them as Shakespearean because he did it “so much better than anyone else.” (Pitt, Greenhaven Press, 1997.)
“Early modern scholars” notes Marjorie Garber , “have long pointed to the tradition of male-male friendship, sometimes called the Friendship Cult, that was strongly in place in England and in Europe at this time.” (Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All, Anchor Books, 2005).
This production takes Shakespeare out of the realm of ‘Stuff You Need to Do to Be Intelligent’ and into the land of ‘Wow! This is Really Fun!’ As Julia, Jessie Austrian has wild swings of emotion which make her sometimes perplexing behavior understandable. She is especially moving in the scenes where she is suffering from Proteus’ many iniquities. She has taken an extremely difficult role and made the result extraordinary. Emily Young handles her dual roles as Lucetta and Silvia with confidence and elan. She is a talented comedienne, but is also strong and sympathetic as Silvia, who feels for poor Julia when Proteus betrays her.
As Speed and Thurio, Paul L. Coffey creates two distinctive, very funny characters who are ready for anything and frequently encounter it.As Lance and the Duke, Andy Grotelueschen is utterly convincing and completely hilarious.He also makes a brief appearance as “Ursula” which has to be seen to be believed.
As Valentine, Zachary Fine is very likeable, and his grief at the loss of Silvia is affecting and heartfelt. It is particularly impressive that he is able to carry off the part during the scenes in which he appears…ah…somewhat obtuse. His performance as Crab delighted the audience, and added to the overall spirit of celebration which pervaded the evening.
As for Proteus, Noah Brody, assisted by some judicious cuts in the script, succeeds in making him an interesting and even plausible character. His journey of self-discovery ends in an awareness of what he has been doing wrong, and this makes him more sympathetic. His performance is an example of how far finding the emotional truth of the character can mitigate flaws and create a unique, believable character.
The company manages to handle the problems of the ending, which critics have always complained about, with great panache and creativity. “Every age creates its own Shakespeare,” says Garber. Congratulations to Co-Directors Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, and to Dramaturg Michele Osherow. The Fiasco Theatre has given us a Shakespeare for today. D.C. is very fortunate to have them.
The presence of a clown, Launce, with a dog, may be a reference to one of the greatest clowns of Shakespeare’s day, Tarlton of the Queen’s Men, who had a gag featuring a dog. Tarlton is famous partly because on one occasion Queen Elizabeth had to ask him to leave the stage because she was laughing so hard.(Shakespeare, by Michael Wood, Basic Books, 2003).
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona plays through May 25, 2014 at The Folger Theatre-201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 554-7077, or purchase them online.
Fiasco Theater’s ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and ‘Cymbeline’ at Folger Theatre-Part 1: Director Ben Steinfeld.
Fiasco Theater’s ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and ‘Cymbeline’ at Folger Theatre-Part 2: Fiasco Theater Company’s Co-Artistic Director and Co-Founder Jessie Austrian.
Fiasco Theater’s ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and ‘Cymbeline’ at Folger Theatre–Part 3: Fiasco Theater’s Co-Artistic Director Noah Brody.