Gritty modern productions of “Romeo and Juliet” are commonplace. Wild emotions, violence, societal repression — how did anyone ever stage this as a stilted classical piece? The same thought might occur to audiences of Shakespeare Theatre’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” One of the bard’s early comedies, it’s generally performed as an over-the-top farce — self-serious in affect, but not taking the characters’ motivations and actions seriously.
Director PJ Paparelli reimagines “Verona” as a fearless musical fantasy. “I don’t think Shakespeare was trying to write a pure comedy,” he says. “The stakes of the play are very real. We just took them at face value.”
It’s impossible to delve into the plot without spoilers, but here’s the gist: Valentine (Andrew Veenstra) and Proteus (Nick Dillenburg) are best friends in Verona. When Valentine departs for Milan, Proteus follows, leaving behind his girlfriend Julia (Miriam Silverman). In Milan, Valentine and Proteus both fall for Silvia (Natalie Mitchell). Add hormones, guns and a funny bit with a dog.
Paparelli’s interpretation of the play seems to owe a lot to the films of director Baz Luhrmann, including “Romeo + Juliet.” Paparelli juxtaposes hyper-realistic fight scenes with the surreal glamour of contemporary Italian nightclubs and plasters corporate logos all over the set to keep the play grounded in modern culture. Snarky supertitles keep the scene changes from becoming confusing.
“Verona” requires young actors who can maneuver barely believable emotional hairpin turns as the characters switch allegiances and forgive the unforgivable. Paparelli’s version also adds that all-important teen mood enhancer, music — in forms as varied as karaoke and late-night lonely piano bar crooning.
“Music is such a big part of a teenager’s life,” Paparelli says. “It was important to me that there be music throughout the play to create an emotional landscape. I was looking for as many opportunities as possible to have music tell the story.”Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW; through March 4, $37-$95; 202-547-1122. (Archives)