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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Young troupe rescues 'Two Gentlemen of Verona'

Emily Young is the maid, Lucetta, and Jessie Austrian is her mistress, Julia, in William Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen in Verona, now on stage at the Folger Theatre through May 25, 2014/Photo by Theresa Wood

In the first act, they needed help. 

It's the script which is not quite as lively as throwing torn love letters up in the air with feverish frequency like the action in Folger Theatre's latest William Shakespeare production, Two Gentlemen of Verona, but it's all in good fun.

Zachary Fine is Valentine walking through one of the many letter showers in William Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen in Verona, now on stage at the Folger Theatre through May 25, 2014/Photo by Theresa Wood

The performers who bring what is generally considered the playwright's weakest (and perhaps his first) play to life with delight are the six-members of New York's Fiasco Theater, mostly graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep theatre arts program (with an outlier from the University of Tennessee) who launched their own company when they could not find jobs.  And what a happy ensemble it is.

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head

And that was before.

In multiple articles the New York Times has praised the mastery of the New York City teachers and actors who make their debut in Washington with the smallest cast of any Shakespeare play .

Two Gentlemen is deemed a comedy and in two scenes, the actors had to take a few seconds to regain composure. Andy Grotelueschen stifled laughter when he briefly appeared as a maid in appropriate garb and matching cap which contrasted nicely with his thick red beard and made the audience howl. 

He's a maid? Andy Grotelueschen has multiple roles in William Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen in Verona, now on stage at the Folger Theatre through May 25, 2014/Photo by Theresa Wood

Grotelueschen is one of three who have multiple roles. Emily Young is Sylvia (pursued by the "two gentlemen") and Lucetta, who is maid for Julia (Jessie Austrian, also the co-director), who is the (temporary) love of one of the two gentlemen, Proteus (Noah Brody) who becomes the subject of ridicule by his best friend, Valentine (Zachary Fine) who mocks Proteus for being blinded by love of Julia and neglect of his own worldly pursuits.  Say what?

Says Proteus:

I leave myself, my friends and all, for love.
Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me,
Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,
War with good counsel, set the world at nought;
Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought.

(Does any of this sound familiar? If not, forsooth and alas, you have never experienced love.)

Haunted by Valentine's words, Proteus follows Valentine to Milan where Proteus becomes enchanted with thoughts of capturing his best pal's gal, Sylvia. But her father, the Duke (Paul L. Coffey), has other ideas and wants Sylvia to link with the wealthy but undesirable Thurio (Grotelueschen).  Suspicious of a relationship between his daughter and Valentine, the Duke keeps Sylvia locked in a tower to thwart ambitions not his own.

Valentine tells Proteus he intends to climb a ladder to free Sylvia from the tower, but Proteus betrays Valentine and squeals the plan to the Duke who banishes that unwanted suitor.

So much for love and friendship.  Which comes first?

Best friends forever are Valentine (Zachary Fine), left, and Proteus (Noah Brody) in William Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen in Verona, now on stage at the Folger Theatre through May 25, 2014/Photo by Theresa Wood

Meanwhile, Julia dresses up like a boy (it is Shakespeare) to spy on Proteus in Milan and find out what's going on.

She dreams of him that has forgot her love;
You dote on her that cares not for your love.
'Tis pity love should be so contrary;
And thinking of it makes me cry 'alas

If this sounds confusing, it is Shakespeare.  (It is always advantageous for us non-Shakespeare scholars to read ahead to gain some knowledge of who does what, to whom, where and when. And is there money involved?) 

The ending is happy, and all is well that ends well.

It is not a long play, lasting just about two hours with intermission.

The set is slim to almost non-existent (increasingly favored by the critics, it seems), and the characters never disappear but exit the wooden semi-circular stage to a slightly lower level where they sit in strategically placed chairs at 9, 10, 12 and 3 o'clock positions and watch the action or play the guitar, banjo, cello and other instruments, adding welcomed period ambiance to the play.  And they pull props for the next scene from large baskets which straddle their seats.  (James Kronzer is scenic designer.)

There are no costume changes other than additions or removals.  Designer Whitney Locher dresses the men mostly in F. Scott Fitzgerald beiges and whites with vests and spats (indeed, Mr. Fine does suggest Mr. Fitzgerald with his sleek hair), and Ms. Young wears a simple, cream-colored dress with appliques (Kate Middleton would love) which works well when covered by an apron and a maid's cap on her head when Lucetta is speaking, and shed when she becomes Sylvia.  

Ms. Young's transition from one character to another mirror the effective changes the other actors make.  (Coffey is also Speed, Valentine's servant, and Grotelueschen, Lance or Launce (both are used) who works for Proteus.)  That the quality of acting is excellent is expected and realized.

It is hard to grasp that a "weak" Shakespeare exists, but for all the playwright's aficionados in the land, this is one they'll mostly love, like the Fiasco members whose exuberance is palpable and easily transfers to the audience (after the first act).

O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away!

Ben Steinfeld co-directs, and Tim Cryan is lighting director.

After they complete Two Gentlemen, Fiasco performs Cymbeline at the Folger from May 28 through June 1.

WhatTwo Gentlemen of Verona

When: Now through May 25, 2014

Where: Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, S. E. Washington, D.C. 20003

Tickets: $40 - $72 with discounts for groups, students, seniors, military, and educators

Metro station: Capitol South or Union Station

For more information: 202.544.7077 or 202.544.4600

Other Two Gentlemen events at the Folger are:

Pre-Show Talk
Wednesday, May 7, 6:30 p.m.
A scholarly discussion of the play with Folger Director Michael Witmore and a light fare reception. Click
here for more information and to purchase tickets ($15).

Post-Show Talk with Cast
Thursday, May 8
Following the 7:30 p.m. performance

Folger Friday
Friday, May 9, 6 p.m.
Poets Michael Gushue and Regie Cabico respond to the play with original works.  Free

James Shapiro, Shakespeare author and scholar
Monday, May 12, 7:30 p.m.
Shapiro will discuss his newest book, Shakespeare in America, with a reception to follow ($15).

Sunday, May 18, 2 p.m.
The box office has details (202.544.7077).

Special Preview Screening

Monday, May 19, at 7 p.m.
Still Dreaming, the story of a remarkable version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream staged by Fiasco directors Brody and Steinfeld and a lively group of elderly entertainers from New Jersey’s Lillian Booth Actors Home. Reserve here ($20).

Exhibition in the Great Hall
Now through June 15
Shakespeare's The Thing, an exhibition in celebration of his 450th birthday which demonstrate his influence on the visual arts, performance and scholarship.

For more area productions and reviews, check out DC Metro Theater Arts.

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