Sets and costumes are, when you get right down to it, a bit redundant if you are the Fiasco Theater. They are the quintessential troupe, pop-up players who could make do with the clothes they came in, the lines in their heads, and whatever is lying about to make a prop of. But, since they do, nonetheless, act on sets, and in costumes, it is impressive how careful they are that naught – and I mean naught – be superfluous. Everything fits, enhances or supports. Nothing is out-of-place, detracts, or undermines.
Which is the case with THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, where the players are surrounded by an effervescent bloom of paper flowers (made of wadded up love letters) that take on the colors of the play’s moods, never sadder, that is to say, than wistful. They are dressed in spring pastels that would work for a walk in the park, and in fact they mingle, as they always do, with the audience before the show and at intermission. They are just people, with the knack for imitation we all have, but just a little, no, a lot more adroit at it, and with better timing.
It is boilerplate to say that THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA is neither the greatest nor weightiest of Shakespeare’s comedies. But in it are the seeds of As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Henry IV, Romeo and Juliet, and more besides, with its cross-dressing, mistaken identities, feckless lovers, banishments, bands in the woods, wordplay, and servants loyal and worldly. The author’s art seems to grow within the space of the play itself, as though, by its second half, the (probably young) playwright has learned how to put all of it together, bouncing the comedy off itself and back again, to delirious and improbable consequence. Fiasco, too, hit their most consistent pace after the intermission, when they return with all the delight of pickers of wildflowers.
Not that there aren’t bouquets to enjoy before. Jessie Austrian and Emily Young, the women of the production, put paid early to the play’s fluffery with a hair-combing scene that is, for all the world, as touching as Desdemona and Emilia’s in Othello. As Julia, determined lover of Proteus, Austrian is classically poised, a figure of strength and independence at the play’s dramatic core. Young, doubling as Julia’s lady-in-waiting Lucetta and her rival-to-be Sylvia, gives the production much of its buoyancy and self-reflective wit. Both are superb and each is wonderful.
The men, of whom there are four in Fiasco’s pared down ensemble, are excellent too, if less even. The Veronese gentlemen, who pursue the available women, are Noah Brady as Proteus and Zachary Fine as Valentine. The former is fresh-faced, jockish, and clear, but a little hollow. The idea might have been to portray Proteus as a loveable lug, which doesn’t work badly but isn’t wholly satisfying either. The latter, in any case, makes a fine Valentine. Off his sloped nose drips a wry naivete, which serves him well when he doubles, uncredited, as the dog Crab, said nose a black bulb. He’s a whiz at canine parody and good at the human stuff too. As Launce, Valentine’s servant and Crab’s master, as well as Antonio and the Duke, Andy Groteslueschen is a paradox. It would be hard to find an actor with a better grasp of Shakespearean syntax; and, with Young brilliantly supporting him, he has one of the production’s most hilarious moments; but he hasn’t found the fullness and resonance to propel him to the next level. Paul Coffey, as the nimble witted servant Speed, is dourly funny and amusingly dour.
The Fiasco formula, of minimal accouterment, efficient doubling, audience mingling, onstage transformation, and musical interlude, might have been made for THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, which Austrian and Ben Steinfeld directed. Paring it down, rather than overblowing it, gets at its essence, a comedy of machination and desire, unmoored of the wisdom (and inconvenient second-guessing) of age. There’s something refreshing in the immature Shakespeare, relative to what came later, and in Fiasco, who, with a maturity beyond their years, have taken him seriously (and comically) nonetheless.
THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA continues at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center of Theatre for a New Audience through June 7. For information and tickets, click here.