The central dilemma of this play is that one of the Gentlemen of Verona, Proteus (Noah Brody) is no gentleman. Instead, he is a cad who seduces and abandons Julia (Jessie Austrian), betrays his friendship to Valentine (Zachary Fine) and pursues Sylvia (Emily Young) much against her will, coming within moments of raping her. He is truly a villain of Iagoian dimensions, and it is an enduring puzzle how he is to be reconciled to the other characters, and to us, at the end of the play.
Some companies perform Two Gentlemen of Verona for no more than its historical position as an early – perhaps the earliest – Shakespeare play, which shows themes (the father-forbidden romance; the woman disguised as a boy; the waggish servant; rope ladders) which will appear in later, better plays. Fiasco Theater – the young NYC company created by graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA program, now staging this play in Folger Theatre – has a better idea: a clear, simple production which poses a possible answer to the Two Gents dilemma…one which issues a profound commentary on the nature of love.
To the two gentlemen, of course, love is a pleasant volcano of emotion, knocking them off-course into a sea of delightful sensation, in which they would delightedly drown. As the play opens Proteus finds himself in love with Julia, and despite Valentine’s gentle teasing is bound to declare and pursue that love. As Valentine departs to Milan to serve in the Emperor’s Court, Proteus sends ardent, urgent messages to Julia, who reacts coquettishly, as she understands is required by the culture. Eventually, Julia requites his passion; there is an exchange of rings – and Proteus is summoned by his father to join Valentine in service in the Emperor’s Court.
In the meantime, Valentine has found himself poleaxed with passion for Sylvia, the daughter of a Duke (Andy Grontelueschen). She reciprocates, but the Duke has it in mind that she marry his cretinous buddy Thurio (Paul L. Coffey) instead. This is of no moment to Valentine, who has hatched a scheme to scurry away with his beloved; when Proteus arrives in town, he is eager to share his plan with his lifelong friend.
But what Valentine, fatally, fails to understand is that Proteus, too, is smitten by Sylvia – and, so moved, decides to betray his friend to the Duke so that he can have his chance with the Duke’s lovely daughter. Valentine is quickly sent into the outer darkness, where he is forced to live by his considerable wits. Sylvia, in the meantime, is as ardent in rejecting Proteus’ importuning (what did he expect?) as she was in accepting Valentine’s.
Shakespeare presents Valentine’s and Proteus’ reciprocated love for Sylvia and Julia, and Proteus’ unrequited love for Julia, as sort of an enchantment – magic pixie dust sprinkled over the participants, mashing their judgment and destroying their moral fiber. It is a theme which repeats itself throughout the canon, most explicitly in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I have to wonder whether the Bard himself, having been obliged at age 18 to marry a woman several years his senior because he had gotten her pregnant, thought that this was what love was – a sort of second cousin to St. Vitus Dance. There is some evidence (check out Sonnet CXXX) that he understood it was something more profound, and constant. Some of that evidence is in this play.
Amidst all the glitter of impassioned protestations of love – all the there-is-no-day-without-Sylvia and all the she-is-my-own-self; all the ego and the selfishness; there is an example of real love. The lover is Proteus’ dimwitted servant, Lance (Grotelueschen). And the beloved is his mongrel dog, Crab (delightfully, played by Fine.). Lance’s description of the relationship is worth repeating:
“When a man’s servant shall play the cur with him, look you, it goes hard: one that I brought up of a puppy; one that I saved from drowning, when three or four of his blind brothers and sisters went to it…If I had not had more wit than he, to take a fault upon me that he did, I think verily he had been hanged for’t; sure as I live, he had suffered for’t; you shall judge. He thrusts me himself into the company of three or four gentlemanlike dogs under the duke’s table: he had not been there–bless the mark!–a pissing while, but all the chamber smelt him. ‘Out with the dog!’ says one: ‘What cur is that?’ says another: ‘Whip him out’ says the third: ‘Hang him up’ says the duke. I, having been acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab, and goes me to the fellow that whips the dogs: ‘Friend,’ quoth I, ‘you mean to whip the dog?’ ‘Ay, marry, do I,’ quoth he. ‘You do him the more wrong,’ quoth I; ”twas I did the thing you wot of.’ He makes me no more ado, but whips me out of the chamber. How many masters would do this for his servant? Nay, I’ll be sworn, I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had been executed; I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t.”
While Lance delivers himself of this speech, Crab stands next to him grinning; he is the happiest dog in Christendom, and maybe anywhere. Crab – just to make sure we’re all on the same page – is beyond reforming; he is a dog, incorrigibly. He pisses under the table and steals people’s puddings, and will do so until he is relieved of his body, and as long as Lance is with him, Lance will interpose himself between Crab and the punishments which will ever befall him.
THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA
Closes May 25, 2014
Fiasco Theater at
201 East Capitol Street, SE
2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $72
Tuesdays thru Sundays
These are – let’s not make any bones about it – superb characterizations, well thought out and beautifully executed. Each character is fully realized, and some of the performances – Young and Coffey stand out in my mind, but your result may vary – are absolutely superb. Plus, there is some excellent music (Ben Steinfeld was the music director).
But what about Proteus? What we learn about him is this: he is a profoundly bad man, “borne to trouble,” as Jonathan Edwards once said, “as the sparks are borne upward.” He will cause trouble, and be trouble, in the future to those who love him. It is his nature to be bad, to cheat on his beloved and to steal pleasures from others, just as it is the nature of Crab the dog to urinate at his pleasure and to steal puddings. We see it in Brody’s steely, immobile face as he confesses his sins to Valentine and to the two women he has wronged; we see it in his shifting eyes; we hear it in the forced humility in his voice. Valentine sees and hears it too, and forgives and loves him anyway, just as Lance continues to forgive and love his dog.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare . directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld . featuring Noah Brody, Jessie Austrian, Paul L. Coffey, Zachary Fine, Andy Grotelueschen and Emily Young . Scenic design: James Kronzer (original design by Jean-Guy Lecat) . Costume design: Whitney Lochner . Lighting design: Tim Cryan. Music director: Ben Steinfeld . Stage manager: Shane Schnetzler . Produced by Folger Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.