Comedic Romanticism in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Chicago’s Fiasco Theater presents Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, purportedly Shakespeare’s first play. It is presented at the Polonsky Theater at Theater for a New Audience. After seeing many Shakespearean tragedies over the last year, I looked forward to watching one of his comedies. I’ve read about twenty of Shakespeare’s plays, but I had no recollection of ever having read this play; however, I had seen it many years ago before this most recent performance. After hearing the audience member’s comment, it caused me to reflect on the expectations of theater. Admittedly, I like to be stimulated intellectually, but I also like to laugh. Laughter without stimulation causes both fatigue and boredom. I enjoyed a recent performance of Hamlet and A Winter’s Tale considerably more than The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Considering the script, this contemporary performance adds both another dimension and depth to the play via props, costumes, set design, and lighting that helps the audience view the play in a contemporary manner instead of fostering nostalgia for the Elizabethan era. (Please see with Domenick Danza and I for further commentary on this play).

Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a romantic comedy, is the story of love, friendship, and betrayal. Valentine is in love with the lovely Silvia; his best friend from Childhood, Proteus, is in love with Julia. Proteus, upon meeting Silvia at the Duke’s Court immediately surreptitiously professes his love for her, although he heretofore professed his love for Julia. Proteus is aware that he is betraying his best friend but he decides to woo Silvia in spite of behaving duplicitously. Silvia, however, has been betrothed to Thurio, a suitor for whom she has no interest. Julia, disguises herself as a man, so that she can reunite with proteus. She eavesdrop on Proteus’s conversations to find out information about Proteus and Silvia. Valentine is banished by Silvia’s father, the Duke, preventing his love for Silvia from prospering. During his banishment, he continues to pine for Silvia, as Proteus desires to plot and scheme to get Silvia. In the end, Proteus and Julia salvage their relationship and profess their love; Similarly, Valentine and Silvia, with the blessing of her father, join together in love, as he realizes that Thurio does not have the depth of character as Valentine.

The set is not elaborate but its simplicity adds to its simple elegance. The set is designed using white crepe paper that appears to have flowers etched into some of the paper. The minimalist set is composed of two white tall pillars that have tree branches at the top of each pillar. There are two benches with a rustic flavor on each side of the stage that serves as seats for the actors when they are not featured in the scene. The floor of the stage is that of a beach boardwalk. At the ceiling of the stage, there is a net that holds the crepe paper. The crepe paper has a whimsical romantic feel as if one is in a country backyard, as if an outdoor wedding is imminent.

Regarding props, the red paper on which a letter is written is fabulous when it is torn to pieces.  It is as if Valentine’s heart is bleeding from over sentimentality. When each piece hits the stage it punctuates both the love that he is feeling and the hurt by his inability to consummate his relationship by marrying Sylvia.

The costumes are contemporary. The men wear Oxford shirts with Khaki pants. One of the characters wears suspenders. All of the men wear saddle shoes. Valentine wears a purple Oxford shirt and Proteus wears mauve Oxford shirt. The women have short flowing white or cream colored dresses with an eyelet design signaling romance and purity. The clothes transport me back to the eighties when the preppy clothing was in vogue.

Zachary  Fine and Emily Young
Zachary Fine and Emily Young

Secondly, this fine youthful ensemble cast adds to the success of the play. When one thinks of marriage, youthfulness is usually apparent. Many of the characters play multiple roles which allows us to see the professional skill of the actors playing varied and distinguished characters. Before the play starts, the cast is on stage jovially playing with each other and engaging in conversations about the lighting and how they will look on stage.  it is obvious that they all work well together. Zachary Fine plays both Valentine and the dog. His emotions are somewhat melodramatic especially when he is banished and he is not able to see his beloved Silvia.  That scene seems to be cloying with extreme sentimentality. The love that he has for her is affective to the extent that the audience feel his emotions which move us to empathy.  He is equally effective and affective as the dog which adds more comedy to the play and makes us all laugh. Emily Young is adorable. Her pulchritude is evident and  we can see why Valentine loves her and why Proteus has fallen for her as well.  She is lovely with her beautiful white dress (which is evident of her purity) and exquisite beauty. The deep love that both Valentine and Silvia have for each other is evident and can be seen through the great chemistry that is depicted throughout the play. The characters exhibit great emotion when their reflection, passion, and despair are all needed to match the events in the play. The scenes with the dog are highly chimerical and they add high comedy to the play. Even characters are seen laughing at well acted scenes. Jessie Austrian plays Julia well. When dressed as a man to conceal her identity, she plays the scene well with great verve. Noah Brody as Proteus illustrate the character well for we see how Proteus is a cad because he allows us to see his own reflective thoughts aptly about his dishonorable actions.

From left : Emily Young and Jessie Austrian
From left : Emily Young and Jessie Austrian

Although, this play is not my favorite and the story lacks both the power and intrigue of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the modernization of this rendition helps one place himself into the lives of the characters who are similar to youthful romantic couples of today. The acting is great and the whimsical nature of the performance allows the audience to both chuckle and smile and subsequently say, “bravo.” Thus, in spite of a nearby audience member’s exclamation, ” I had forgotten how dumb this play actually was,” I actually enjoyed it for the comedy in which it was intended.

I am looking forward to The Public Theater’s Performance of The Tempest and Cymbeline (I’ve neither read nor seen Cymbeline) at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. I hope that they will be just as ebullient with vivacity as The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch

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