The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Truth in the Matter
American Shakespeare Center's Hungry HeartsTour, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia
Saturday, September 3, 2016, C–6&7 (front middle stalls)
Directed by Jemma Alix Levy
Thurio (Cordell Cole, right) ponders the proffered hand of Silvia (Zoe Speas) in the American Shakespeare Center's Hungry Hearts Tour production of William Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Below, Julia (Sara J. Griffin, right) argues with her gentlewoman Lucetta (Constance Swain) over a love letter sent by Proteus. While Speas' Silvia is the catalyst of the play's plot, Griffin's Julia is the heart of the production. Photos by Tommy Thompson, American Shakespeare Center.
Some William Shakespeare plays are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is in that last camp. Long the play I most maligned among Shakespeare’s solo works, The Two Gentlemen of Verona has been moving steadily up the charts in my estimation, production by production. Now comes the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) Hungry Hearts Tour version, and even if Two Gents is not a Top 10 Shakespeare play, this production makes it seem so.
It does so by being pure and simple (though lushly costumed, as Designer Tricia Emlet creates a Disney-colorful Elizabethan and Italian Renaissance look). That’s the real irony of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I never thought the play reads well on the page: its poetry is obtuse when it’s not pedantically allegorical, its plot has more holes than a Trump tweet, and the ending is irreconcilable to 21st century propriety. Many productions try to disguise these shortcomings in conceptual readings. Yet, the best productions serve up the play without conceptual layering: the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory 2012 original practices production (no director, one week’s rehearsal), the Fiasco Theater 2014 production (six actors, textual fealty), and the Taffety Punk 2015 “Bootleg Shakespeare” production (mounted in one day—no time for conceptualizing).
The ASC specializes in text-centric productions in keeping with the Shakespearean-era staging conditions of its home theater, the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, the world’s only replication of Shakespeare’s indoor theater. The touring company adheres to that standard, even on the road, and while this production may have had plenty of rehearsal time for its 11 actors guided by a director’s vision, that director, Jemma Alix Levy, founder and artistic director of Muse of Fire Theatre Company in Evanston, Illinois, loves the play, the first Shakespeare she ever saw.
“I was 7 years old, and yet I understood these characters because they had the same complex feelings as I did,” Levy writes in her program notes. She recalls her first best friend, “the friendship that would anchor most of my childhood,” and compares that with the relationship between Proteus and Valentine. “The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a play about friendship. Yes, it is also a love story, but the real love story here is between Proteus and Valentine. And that may be why we have such trouble understanding or accepting it today.” She’s not referring to homosexuality but a bond of childhood friendship that, usually, doesn’t survive growing up; a bond that, once we grow up, we have trouble emotionally comprehending. “The Two Gentlemen of Verona is confusing, not because Elizabethan relationships were so different from what we experience today, but because love is confusing; friendship is confusing; life is confusing. And when all those elements get tangled together, the confusion (and the comedy) grows exponentially.”
Notable that she mentions “the comedy,” and though comedy is parenthetical in her commentary, it is not so in her production, which is hilarious through and through. Of course there’s Launce, affably played by Andrew Goldwasser, and his dog, Crab (in this performance played by Leah Lou Ann, that night’s guest artist from the local animal shelter: the tour is partnering with local shelters to provide Crabs and promote their adoption). However, the production’s character-driven comedy generates equally big laughs as Levy and her talented cast unearth gems in Shakespeare’s script, polish them with exact line readings, and deliver them on a chain of interlocking relationship arcs.
The first thrust of greatness comes in the first scene with Ross Neal laying the groundwork for his portrayal of Valentine. A marathon of classical allusions and wit-play—which, for me, often grows tiresome by the second mile—the opening scene in this production surges with Neal’s almost belligerent earnestness as he rails against love and romance. He’s so strident he hurts the feelings of Proteus (Josh Clark). Valentine finds the whole notion of love ridiculous, arguing his point with clear-headed logic, which makes his own succumbing to love by the beginning of the next act all the more stunning. “I know you joy not in a love discourse,” Proteus says when they reunite in Milan. “Ay, Proteus, but that life is altered now,” Valentine replies. “I have done penance for contemning Love … for in revenge of my contempt of love, love hath chased sleep from my enthrallèd eyes.” Valentine not only has grown up in his time away from Proteus, he's about to leave Proteus again—just arrived in Milan—by eloping with Silvia.
Proteus, however, is about to jump on that aimless rocket, too. Keep in mind, if Silvia can have this effect on Valentine (and Zoe Speas, playing Silvia, in physical beauty, elegant charm, and spirited personality has this effect on men) she can have it on Proteus, too. Further, Proteus finds validation for his own moment of smite in the testimony he’s just heard of the previously hard-hearted Valentine. Not that Julia (Sara J. Griffin) isn't stunning herself: her self-evaluation in comparison to Silvia is accurate. “Here is her picture,” Julia says when, disguised as a boy, she serves as a love emissary for Proteus to Silvia: “I think if I had such a tire, this face of mine were full as lovely as is this of hers.” Julia compares auburn hair to “perfect yellow” (hers), and low forehead to high, but otherwise, “What should it be that he respects in her but I can make respective in myself if this fond Love were not a blinded god?”
Indeed, Proteus falls in love with Silvia at first sight: “’Tis but her picture I have yet beheld, and that hath dazzlèd my reason’s light,” he says near the end of his first soliloquy after meeting Silvia. At the end he falls back in love with Julia the moment he sees her as herself. Many may skoff at this sudden turnaround as disingenious, but, frankly, each time you encounter such a Silvia or such a Julia, it's easy for a guy to become completely smitten with the one in view. Furthermore, lust is more than the person: it's the moment in time—how he or she looks in that light, in that outfit, in that circumstance, and in your own specific condition, i.e., newly arrived in Milan for both Valentine and Proteus. I get that: though ecstatically married, when I was in Venice, in Barcelona, and in Istanbul on business trips, whether due to the atmosphere of those cities or my own aloneness, I fell head over heals in lust a half dozen times, even with women I already knew but never saw in such a light before. I just never acted upon that lust.
Proteus does, big time: over the course of back-to-back soliloquies separated by a 40-line scene between the clowns, Proteus determines to dump his girlfriend, betray his best friend, and stalk a woman he just met. As Clark begins Proteus’s first soliloquy about his onsetting feelings for Silvia, a feeling of unease percolates in the audience. “She is fair,” Proteus says of Silvia; “and so is Julia that I love—that I did love, for now my love is thawed.” Some in the audience on cue say, "ohhhh," and Clark starts playing to this chorus of disapproval, laying out almost in legal terms why he should pursue the path he ultimately takes. He convinces himself, but this jury isn’t buying it.
Our representation comes from Lucetta, Julia’s gentlewoman, in the scene immediately following Proteus’s second soliloquy. As Julia determines to disguise herself and traipse off to Milan after Proteus, Lucetta (Constance Swain), warns, “I fear me he will scarce be pleased withall.” “That is the least, Lucetta, of my fear,” Julia says. “A thousand oaths, an ocean of his tears, and instances of infinite of love warrant me welcome to my Proteus.” “All these are servants to deceitful men,” Lucetta replies, and you can almost hear the vertebrae in a hundred necks around you nodding in agreement.
Griffin as Julia and Swain as Lucetta have found a nice balance of the lady/maid relationship, an intimate one despite their social statuses remaining fully in place. Julia is the flighty girl of privilege and sometimes pulls rank (to Lucetta's bemusing irritation), but what she most desires is the companionship of the only real girlfriend she has in Lucetta.
With this tight and talented ensemble, such tandem performances make scenes crackle with honest-hearted intensity. Valentine’s letter scene with Silvia, and Valentine’s subsequent parrying with his servant, Speed (Aleca Piper), is acted more in facial expression than lines: Neal’s Valentine is confused, Speas’ Silvia tries to speak with her eyes what she can’t say in words, and Piper’s Speed appreciates Silvia’s ingenuity in tricking Valentine into writing a love letter from her to himself. When Silvia’s father, the Duke of Milan (J.C. Long), uncovers Valentine's plot to elope with his daughter, the action plays out like a bullfight, the father snatching at Valentine's cloak under which a rope ladder is hidden (in the performance we attended, Neal as Valentine gives a member of the audience the rope to hide, and Long’s Duke discovers it behind the back of the patron). Griffin’s Julia has a resonating parting from Proteus as he’s about to leave Verona for Milan. Later, when Proteus reports to Thurio (Cordell Cole), the Duke’s preferred suitor to his daughter, on how Silvia takes the suit, the disguised Julia puns along. Though Julia’s lines are asides, Proteus feeds her their fodder. In this we see the chemistry in this couple, something Proteus has been blind to when focusing on the “picture” of Silvia instead of his memory of Julia.
For all her grace and charm. Speas nevertheless gives Silvia a dogged determination (dogged as in Rottweiler, with teeth bared) against Proteus’s stalking ways, and she shows steely courage in the forest when Proteus attempts to rape her. This Silvia is a force. On the other hand, all Cole has to do is walk on stage as Thurio to bring the house down. He's tall, so his high-cut, bowl-shaped britches leave a lot of white-stocking legs that Cole positions into the posture of a petulant 13-year-old, the expression on his face, too. He speaks volumes in a wordless moment as he delicately takes Silvia's hand in his, pulls out an antibacterial tissue, wipes her hand, kisses it, then wipes his hand after letting go of hers.
After playing up the character comedy of the text for four acts, Director Levy plays the final scene with all seriousness. Proteus is truly distraught in the exposure of his duplicity, and though we, with benefit of life-lived context, can question his veracity here, in this specific moment neither he nor Valentine and Silvia have any doubt that his expression of guilt is authentic. Neal delivers Valentine’s conundrum line, “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee,” while holding Speas’s hand at his side, both standing firm as a couple; however you gloss the line, the visual here is of a unified love and friendship. Why, then, does Julia suddenly swoon at this with “O, me unhappy”? Perhaps because she is watching the kind of love relationship in Valentine and Silvia, the sense of true partners, that she longs for with Proteus—and, ironically, experienced when she was disguised as a boy.
Griffin’s Julia is the heart of this production. Despite Proteus being the plot’s centerpiece and Silvia the catalyst for the proceedings, Julia carries the play’s theme, and Griffin succinctly plays the arc from her confused state when falling in love with Proteus at the beginning of the play to her strategically manipulating Proteus into a trap at the end. At the height of that arc is Julia’s lament that love is to blame for everything going awry: not Silvia for being so beautiful and charming, not herself for being so naively true, and not even Proteus for being a lying scumbag. It is all the fault of “fond Love,” the “blinded god” that causes such psychosis in people. Really? Really?
Really. If The Two Gentlemen of Verona is confusing to audiences, it’s because we’re not being honest with ourselves.
January 11, 2017
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