On Stage: A Frolicking Good Time

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Fiasco’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” breathes life into Shakespeare’s ‘weakest’ play.

Fiasco Theater "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" at Folger. (Photo by Jeff Malet)

Fiasco Theater “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at Folger. (Photo by Jeff Malet)

The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” presently at the Folger Theatre, is believed to be one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. It has the smallest cast of any of his plays and is considered to be the weakest. Whatever that means or doesn’t mean, the only thing relevant is that “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” in the playful hands of Fiasco Theater, is delightful.

The six youthful performers who playfully breathe fun and vitality into the production represent a new generation of Shakespearean actors. They are respectful, but not in awe of the Bard and are having a great time in making Shakespeare more than accessible. The Folger, in other Shakespearean productions this year (not connected with Fiasco) also has shown a freshness and vitality. It’s an interesting contrast to the Shakespeare Theatre’s more traditional production of “Henry IV,” parts one and two, at the Harman across town. That’s not to compare one of the great history plays with a frothy comedy, but the approach is significantly different.

The Fiasco players perform on an empty stage with minimum props without a specific time period or some kind of “different” costuming, and it seems to be the right way to go. This is not a Broadway hit musical with a helicopter landing on stage, or an actor dressed as Spiderman flying about. You are not there to be awed by an elegant background and within minutes you don’t miss it. The men wear off-white Gatsby-type suits with saddle shoes of pastel coloring while the two women are in feminine dresses, one in a short lacey white number, the other in a blue-and-white full-length dress. Nearly all of them play an instrument in brief musical interludes and sing a couple of happy songs.

The six performers — Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Zachary Fine, Andy Grotelueschen and Emily Young — have as much fun as the audience in this production. The actors never leave the stage. When a scene is completed, they simply move to the sides and sit and watch their colleagues perform. On a couple of occasions — and it could just be part of the performance — one of them will do something unexpected, forcing the others to contain their laughter and keep on script. Rehearsed or unrehearsed reactions aside, the talented performers seem to enjoy blatantly playing to the audience. And the audience appreciates being part of the action.

“The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” co-directed by Austrian and Brody, is about male friendships, love and infidelity. This apparently was the first time Shakespeare created a female love interest who disguised herself as a boy, a technique he uses frequently in later plays. Maybe it was more believable when there were only male actors on the Elizabethan stage and young men played the female roles. Here, it’s fun to just go with the inane deception.

There is nothing complex about the Verona gentlemen who are especially fond of each other, even when one of them tries to steal his friend’s love interest. There are a few moments of tension at the end when one of them makes threatening sexual moves on the woman, which his friend quickly blocks. Within moments, however, all is forgiven and the two men love each other again and get back to the woman with whom they started. This kind of “all is well” ending is seen in subsequent Shakespearean productions.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona” may have been the early work of a great playwright stretching his creative talents, and while many scholars feel it’s his weakest, the Fiasco Theater actors have made it an energetically entertaining theatrical experience.

William Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” continues through May 25, 2014 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets $30-$72 available at 202-544-7077 and online here.

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