Last week, on a warm spring evening, I saw Fiasco Theatre’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre in Brooklyn. Directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, Fiasco’s production (which was originally produced at the Folger in 2014) is performed by a small group of actor-musicians, on an all-but bare stage.
Fiasco’s Two Gentlemen of Verona is a tasteful, pared down production that compensates for its production paucity with an exuberant collective energy that drives the play through its sillier moments with a wink to the audience. The production feels cartoonish at first but is anchored by the weight of the terrific female performances, and pulls together as a delightful spring treat.
The Polonsky’s stage maintains the pastel palette that characterizes the production, encasing the stage in a net that is wallpapered with crumpled love letters and flowers. Tim Cryan’s lighting is gauzy and romantic, when combined with the folksy music performed by the ensemble, creates a beautiful and appropriately seasonal aesthetic. The tasteful neutrals that extend to the costumes appear to have jumped from the pages of a J.Crew catalogue (do such things still exist?), which suits the vaguely frat-boy aura of the two gentlemen well. Zachary Fine and Noah Brody, who play Valentine and Proteus respectively, portray the two lovers as aging prep-school men-children with a lot of urgency, but little depth. Fine shines in his double casting as the Crab, donning a black nose and guileless air to create a jolly, slightly apologetic dog, who wins our devotion as much as he embarrasses his owner. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a play that belongs to the clowns – Will Kemp’s likely improvisation of Launce’s speeches result in a text that is littered with stage directions, giving Andy Grotelueschen very specific acting notes, and his fidelity to enacting Kemp’s legacy pays off by elevating the clown scenes to a gleeful, although never quite anarchic, chaos.
If the clowns are the life of Fiasco’s production, then the women are its heart. Jessie Austrian’s Julia finds her strength in the second half of the play, and comes into her own, when dressed up in trousers in pursuit of her erstwhile lover. Emily Young is superb as both Lucetta and Sylvia. In fact, she is so good that she threatens to undermine the stakes of the play, as her steadfast loyalty renders Sylvius’ threat to Valentine’s happiness utterly toothless by her loyalty and strength of conviction. Fiasco deftly navigates this threat to our disbelief, however, by its knowing resistance to the fairy tale ending.
The value of the womens’ relationship pays off at the end of the drama, with the reconciliation of the only relationship in the play that matters to the two gentlemen – their bromance (and this ghastly term is an accurate portrayal of Brody and Fine’s relationship). Young’s reaction to Valentine’s willing relinquishment of her to Proteus was a fitting response to the smugness of the two men, who thankfully stop short of high-fiving each other in self-congratulation. It was hard to resist the temptation of shouting “good luck, ladies” at the stage, although, judging by the look on Young’s face, her Sylvia was starting to realize what she had yoked herself to. However, this is still Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the boys looked lovely enough to be worthy of the ladies’ forgiveness, and the production ended on a suitably celebratory note.
Ultimately, Fiasco’s production consciously skirts the discomfort that might arise by the accentuation of the homoeroticism between the two men or, quite frankly, the appalling treatment of the objects of their various affections. Yet, my suggestion that the production takes the path of least resistance is not a criticism – the production is a treat from start to finish. It gives space to the breezy fairy tale at the heart of Shakespeare’s text, presenting a glossy and pastoral mid-spring’s night dream.