Review by JK Clarke
Anyone who has seen William Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona—a thin romantic comedy of betrayal—more than once will almost certainly ask when told of a new production, “how do they do the dog?” It’s actually a fairly legitimate question, for the play features a dog (Crab) who has a more than passing role. He gets his owner, the bumbling servant Launce (Andy Grotelueschen), in a good deal of trouble when he pees on a leading lady. But it’s not just a facile fascination with cute animals that drives one’s interest in the mutt. Rather, how a company approaches Crab often says a lot about the look and feel of the production itself. That certainly is the case with Fiasco Theater’s version of Two Gentlemen of Verona which plays through May 24 at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polansky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn.
Two Gentlemen of Verona tells the story of childhood friends Valentine (Zachary Fine) and Proteus (Noah Brody), desperately in love, respectively, with Sylvia (Emily Young) and Julia (Jessie Austrian, who also co-directs with Ben Steinfeld). But Proteus is more scoundrel than gentleman and he too falls in love with Sylvia, who additionally has been promised by her father to another man. Proteus fibs and schemes in an attempt to woo Sylvia who is having none of it, while Julia—in one of the first instances of a classic Shakespearean ruse in this very early play—disguises herself as a messenger boy in order to pursue Proteus. Though Julia allows herself to be treated as a welcome mat and Proteus behaves inexcusably, attempting to sexually assault Sylvia in the woods (where she had gone to pursue the banished Valentine) and betraying his friends, ultimately all lovers are matched with their intended partner in a supposedly happy ending. As bitter a pill as it is for contemporary audiences to swallow, Fiasco’s lighthearted treatment of his egregious behavior makes for an airy and amusing play.
And that’s where the dog comes in. Some productions of Two Gents use a puppet to represent the dog; others have employed large, stuffed animals; and, many, many more have used real dogs, much to the audience’s delight. But Fiasco uses Zachary Fine, with a round black (and wet?) nose strapped to his face, to play Crab. This Crab is eager, wide-eyed, and a tad mischievous. And that’s the whole play: it’s earnest, uplifting and light as a feather.
Summer weight v-neck sweaters, tan linens and straw hats make up the men’s costumes (Whitney Locher); and the women are in pretty, light-colored, pastoral dresses. In traditional Globe Theater fashion, the cast mingles with the audience prior to the play and smiles abound throughout, in a way that can’t help bring to mind the musical education troupe Up With People. But, coupled with Shakespeare’s beautiful verse and dialog, the experience is neither trite nor cringe-worthy.
Most of the actors play multiple roles, and some verses are converted to song, accompanied by other actors, who are accomplished cellists, mandolin strummers or percussionists. Emily Young, with her contagious charm, delivers a Sylvia who may even be worthy of Proteus’s betrayal; and while Zachary Fine’s ernest Valentine is the moral center of the play, it’s his happy Crab that wins everyone’s heart. On a set (Derek McLane) that at times feels like a deep, three-dimensional forest and at others looks like piles of paper blown up against a cyclone fence, it’s easy to lose oneself in these lovers’ quests to re-find themselves and the true value of true love and friendship.
Two Gentlemen of Verona. Through May 24 at Theatre for a New Audience, Polansky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn). www.tfana.org
Photo: Gerry Goodstein