When the audience comes into the theater, the stage seems to have been turned into a bower of flowers by designer Derek McLane. However, on closer inspection, the flowers are made of crushed paper and might just be the love letters that the characters are always sending each other. This is all the scenery on stage and all that is needed by the resourceful Fiasco Theater. Before the show, the actors stroll around among the audience breaking down the fourth wall so that when the play begins with a song, they have become friends of ours and we are already disposed to like them, whether they are faithful in love or not.
Staged by Fiasco’s co-artistic directors Jessie Austrian (who appears as Julia) and Ben Steinfeld, the play has been streamlined and shortened by eliminating minor characters so that in the reduced cast of six, four of the actors play one character each. Emily Young plays both the servant Lucetta in the Verona section of the play and later Sylvia, daughter of the Duke, in the Milan section, while Andy Grotelueschen plays three. Believed to be Shakespeare’s first play, this romantic comedy is a young man’s play of young lovers acting passionately and sometimes foolishly, a story of friendship, love, betrayal and forgiveness. It also contrasts those who are fixed in their love object and those who are fickle, falling in love with one person after another.
Best friends since childhood, Valentine (Zachary Fine) follows Honor while Proteus (Noah Brody) follows Love and is as changeable as his name, falling in love with whichever pretty girl is near. When Valentine plans to leave Verona to find his fortune in Milan, Proteus chooses to stay at home as he has fallen in love with the lovely Julia. Proteus and Julia exchange vows and rings just before his father insists he follow Valentine to Milan and seek his fortune. In the meantime, Valentine has fallen desperately in love with Sylvia, the animated and vivacious daughter of the Duke, but he wishes her to marry the rich Sir Thurio whom she detests.
When Proteus arrives in Milan, he is immediately smitten with the beauty of Sylvia and forsakes his love. Betraying Valentine, he reveals to the Duke that Sylvia and his friend plan to elope in the dead of night, and Valentine is banished to the forest. Back in Verona, Julia decides to disguise herself as a man (Sebastian) and travel to Milan to find her love. Not recognized by Proteus, she becomes his page-boy just in time to have him use her to send love letters to Sylvia, who loyal to Valentine, will have none of him. Eventually they all end up in the forest surrounding Milan where the banished Valentine is now head of a band of outlaws. After several misadventures, all turns out for the best and the four lovers are all reunited with their fated partners. Much of the play is devoted to witty wordplay of the young lovers and their assorted servants.
Typecast as the charming cad as he was as the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods, Noah Brody makes Proteus a sincere rascal that one takes at his word when he says it. New to Fiasco, Zachary Fine is equally charming as the loyal Valentine. He also appears as the silent dog Crab by adding a black nose and threatens to steal the show with his deadpan smiling looks that suggest he is utterly contented or utterly confused, as the case may be. Jessie Austrian (who played a strong and forceful Baker’s Wife in the Sondheim musical) is here a confused but love-struck young woman afraid to admit her true feelings. She turns the scene in which she tears up Proteus’ letter and then desperately tries to fathom its message into a tour de force of memorable proportions. Emily Young is a spirited Lucetta (servant to Julia), as well as a self-possessed Sylvia who gives as good as she gets to all the fawning suitors she must deal with.
Bearded Andy Grotelueschen is delightful as Launce, addled servant to Proteus, who has a wonderful facility with his long cunning speeches, and also appears as the authority figures Antonio (father to Proteus) and the Duke of Milan (Sylvia’s father). Paul L. Coffey is equally delightful as Speed, servant to Valentine, and also puts in an uncredited appearance as the foolish but rich Sir Thurio. While all of the men at one time or another pick up musical instruments, Coffey is responsible for most of the live background music from the sidelines where all of the actors sit when not center stage.
The cast has been dressed by Whitney Locher in contemporary yet simple clothing in pale pink, blue and lavender against whites which add to the romantic aspect of the play. Tim Cryan bathes the stage in various pastel colors reminding us that we are witnessing young love. Fiasco Theater’s production of The Two Gentleman of Verona uses no scenery nor does it need any, and makes every word understandable even after 400 years. The talented cast of six turns this light comedy into a witty evening in which all of the jokes land and the audience is entranced for its entire duration. Do yourself a favor and see how Shakespeare comedies should be performed. You will also come out of the evening a huge fan of Fiasco Theater and its house style.
Two Gentlemen of Verona (extended through June 20, 2015)
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Theatre for a New Audience, 262 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.tfana.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission