The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s hormone-drunk Two Gentlemen of Verona is a story of mad children at play in the house of their own hearts, adrift and rudderless in a storm of their passions, laughing and drinking and singing and skating closer to death than they can possibly understand. It is the interpretation one might expect from a director who co-authored columbinus, the chilling reimagining of the Columbine killings drawn from interviews with high schoolers and produced a few years back at Round House. It is also, perhaps, the only interpretation that works.
The problem with Two Gentlemen of Verona, which may have been Shakespeare’s first play, has always been that it’s not really about two gentlemen. It’s about one gentleman and one guy who acts like a jerk. Valentine (Andrew Veenstra) and Proteus (Nick Dillenburg) are childhood friends who we meet as they are departing from each other – Valentine to seek his fortunes in the big city of Milan and Proteus, remaining in Verona to court his beloved Julia (Miriam Silverman). But thereafter, Proteus’ dad (Christopher McHale) summarily decides to kick Proteus out of the house and sends him to Milan. That’s when things get squirrely.
Valentine, in Milan, has fallen for the Duke’s daughter Silvia (Natalie Mitchell), notwithstanding that the Duke (Brent Harris) has promised her to the brutish Thurio (Gene Gillette, appropriately scary). But when Valentine confesses his love for Silvia to the newly-arrived Proteus, and also his plans to elope with her, Proteus throws over Julia and decides he wants Silvia for himself. He betrays Valentine to the Duke, and then pretends to woo Silvia on Thurio’s behalf, all the while trying to win her for himself. In short, he wanders perilously close to Iago territory, and the great challenge of the play is to make it so the audience can understand and love Proteus and thus make Two Gentlemen a triumphant comedy rather than a tragedy or a hate crime.
But it can be done, and the text with which to do it is not a piece of Shakespearian scholarship but the amicus brief by the American Psychiatric Association (and others) in Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 176 L. Ed. 2d 825 (2010), where the State sought to send a 16-year-old serial burglar to prison for life without parole. “[R]ecent neuroscience research,” the Association reported in that brief, “shows that adolescent brains are not yet fully developed in regions related to higher-order executive functions such as impulse control, planning ahead, and risk evaluation. That anatomical immaturity is consonant with juveniles’ demonstrated psychosocial (that is, social and emotional) immaturity.”
But we knew that. Over a hundred years ago, juvenile court judge Benjamin Lindsey said, “our laws against crime are as inapplicable to children as they would be to idiots.”
Young idiots overrun Verona, Milan and points in between, from the play’s riotous whiskey-chugging beginnings in a late-night parking lot to the moment at story’s end where the principals emerge, shaken and sobered, from an abandoned warehouse. (Walt Spangler’s chameleon of a set serves both these purposes, and a half dozen more). Director PJ Paparelli moves his cast along on an electric current of sex and music.
The music is the kind you hear in night clubs and bars today – dance music, trance music, with a heavy, insistent beat, full of passion and melancholy. The kids – Valentine and Proteus, Julia and Silvia, and nearly everyone else – move to its galvanic beat, but this is not simply Two Gentlemen of Verona set to music (that comes later) or placed in modern times. Though the music is contemporary and laptops and cell phones are everywhere, the costumes (Paul Spadone) come from all periods, and Paparelli is clear that he is describing a timeless condition. Why does Proteus abandon all moral principals in pursuit of Silvia, and why does Julia pine after him despite his piggish behavior? Because they’re young, and in the grip of something as powerful and more real than anything Puck cast on his victims in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare uses every opportunity to show his principals as children under the spell of Eros, and Paparelli uses every opportunity to emphasize the point. The only adults with authority in the play order them about summarily, and then walk off the stage; these kids are truly on their own. And Paparelli reinforces the perspective in his casting – most noticeably, the diminutive Silverman as Julia against Inga Ballard, a robust actor with a powerful voice, as her waiting-woman Lucetta. As Lucetta gently (and sometimes not-so-gently) and indulgently chides the whining, pouting, passionately impulsive Julia it is impossible not to think of a child squaring off her worldly-wise mother, who has seen – and felt – this all before.
Paparelli does another exceedingly effective thing – flashes amusing asides in surtitles to announce the setting for each scene. (“On the outskirts of Mantua,” a typical title reads before the scene in which Valentine encounters a trio of bandits. “Not the best part of town.”) The titles are not hilarious bon mots or even funny frames for the action to come, but they do give us a sense of adult perspective – a reassurance that though the action is furious and dangerous and seems, to the people involved, full of life-and-death torment, to us (who were once them) it seems safe and funny.
Paperelli’s most potent weapon in dealing with the difficulties the play presents is his cast, and particularly Veenstra and Dillenburg as Valentine and Proteus. Proteus behaves like an ass, but the Proteus Dillenburg puts on the stage isn’t an ass – he’s a man-child in the grips of a newfound passion, desperately improvising in order to scratch an itch he doesn’t even understand.
But what really makes the play work is the spin Veenstra and Paparelli put on Valentine. It would be easy to make Valentine a plaster saint, a noble victim, but if he is, every effort to redeem Proteus is doomed. Veenstra gives Valentine an angry, self-indulgent edge, particularly in the opening scenes, so that we understand we are dealing not with abstractions but with flawed people like ourselves. The fine work of these two young actors steers this play past its deficiencies and helps reveal its deep humanity.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production works because it shows us – and our parents and grandparents – at an age when we felt everything and understood nothing. It reminds us, as perhaps our memories do not, what it was like when the sun rose and set on a lover’s kiss; when a hard word from our amour was like a death sentence; when a life separate from our beloved was no life at all.
You will see the precursors of Shakespeare’s other, better work here, particularly Merchant of Venice, Midsummer’s Night Dream, All’s Well that Ends Well, Othello and, most prominently, Romeo and Juliet. As he does in his later plays, Shakespeare establishes his comedy through his rustics – here Speed (Adam Green), Valentine’s man, and Launce (the excellent Euan Morton), who serves Proteus. Launce, who is dimly preparing himself for a life of marital bliss with a milkmaid (reviewing her merits and demerits with Speed, who warns him that the maid is “slow of tongue”, Launce replies in perplexed outrage: “O villain, that set this down among her vices! To be slow in words is a woman’s only virtue.”) inadvertently shows us what true love is – not in his feelings for his milkmaid, but in his love for his dog Crab (the huge mutt Oliver, straddling the line between Best Actor and Best in Show, and handled by Kathryn Zaremba.)
True love is not suffering, but it is ready for suffering when suffering comes, and Launce has suffered for his dog. “I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had been executed,” Launce explains. “I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t.” What we see between Proteus and Julia, Valentine and Silvia, is not true love, but only its showy cousin passion, but if they are lucky, and patient, true love waits for them.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona runs thru March 4, 2012 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW Washington, DC.
Two Gentlemen of Verona
By William Shakespeare
Directed by PJ Paparelli
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one intermission
- Gwendolyn Purdom . Washingtonian
- Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
- Bob Ashby . ShowBizRadio
- Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper
- Amanda Gunther . MDTheatreGuide
- Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broaday
Amanda Gunther . MDTheatreGuide