The Two Gentlemen of Verona

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Editorial Review

Review: Young hearts race in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’

By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012

The Shakespeare Theatre Company's entertaining but over-the-top "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" wastes no time coming at you. PJ Paparelli's production of Shakespeare's comedy about double-crossing friends opens in a fast-food parking lot with teenagers engaging in binge drinking; within a minute a kid tosses his cookies. Music pounds, and snarky text-message narration flashes on a screen overhead. Guns are around. Like the pulse of a 17-year-old, it's all very racy.

If Paparelli has a signature, this is it. Several seasons ago he created an exceptionally youthful, remarkably raw "Romeo and Juliet," and his "columbinus" was an arresting and incisive depiction of the 1999 high school shootings in Colorado. Both shows were first-rate dramatic studies of kids on the edge.

You can see why Paparelli would return to this territory - though not why he pushes it to such unexpectedly grim heights - for the infrequently staged "Two Gents." The play is about young lovers and whiplash impulses: Valentine teases his pal Proteus for mooning over a lass named Julia, but everything changes when the boys hit the big town of Milan. Both guys fall for the Duke's elegant daughter Silvia, with the changeable Proteus proving especially willing to forget fair Julia and backstab his buddy.

Yes, it's a comedy: The play has two clowns and a dog, and the lovers and friends spend a lot of time swapping witty repartee. But the emotional switchbacks are sharp, and the play's sudden ending threatens real violence. The climax of this play, arguably Shakespeare's earliest, is notoriously impossible.

Paparelli's solution is to plunge us into the hothouse emotions of adolescence, and for much of the show he makes it a real ride. Walt Spangler's metallic set juts out into the Lansburgh Theatre, with catwalks crisscrossing the stage and giant commercial logos (Apple, McDonald's, many more) casting a Times Square glow while promoting an aura of instant gratification. The characters tease each other on smartphones and croon sappy love songs in a karaoke bar; except for Paul Spadone's peculiarly stiff Elizabethan/modern mashup costumes, it's all very familiar and energetic.

It's well-acted, too, which comes as a relief. (The show is so action-packed you worry sometimes about its ability to calm down and talk.) Especially winning are the clowns, played by the admirably relaxed Adam Green and Euan Morton. Green is droll and drily amused as Speed, Valentine's servant-with-a-skateboard, and Morton beams as Launce, the loopy fool who mopes over the seeming indifference of his dog Crab (tranquilly played by a shaggy, cock-eared pooch named Oliver).

It takes a while for the lovers to really pop out, but eventually Andrew Veenstra makes an appealing Valentine, while Nick Dillenburg shows glimpses of the Iago he may someday be in his smoothly self-serving Proteus. Natalie Mitchell has a fine imperial presence as Silvia and Miriam Silverman's plucky, pouty Julia brings welcome passion to the finish.

If the show doesn't quite click, it's largely because of its cineplex-style use of U2 tunes and firearms. Music is oxygen in this milieu, of course, but some of the songs Paparelli and his composer and sound designer Fabian Obispo use are so painfully on the nose as to be eye-rolling. There are "Glee"-spirited moments that will make you laugh, but that's offset by the sense of applying an easy pop patch where the characters or story seem reluctant to fly.

But the big test of how you feel about this lively "Two Gents" is how you respond to its violence. Some of the chase scenes and scuffles on those catwalks are fabulous, but this weaponized show repeatedly pushes its kids to extreme moments of despair and self-damage with razors and pistols, making this play darker and more disturbing than "Romeo and Juliet."

In his last plays, Shakespeare used magic and an expansive spirit to make us accept crazy tales. For the rougher "Two Gents," Paparelli gets it done at gunpoint.

Preview: Two times the ‘Two Gentlemen’ at Shakespeare Theatre

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Jan. 20, 2012

Before you start tut-tutting over Shakespeare Theatre Company's rocking, logo-laden vision of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," it helps to know this: Shakespeare's early play isn't exactly a masterwork in the vein of "Richard III" or "Hamlet."

In fact, it could be called the "Gossip Girl" of the Shakespearean canon.

Teenage love triangles, caddish boyfriends, boozing, inexplicable plot twists - the playwright employed them all in his comedy about best friends who arrive in the big city and promptly commence with the backstabbing.

For a new production that began its run this week at the Lansburgh Theatre, director PJ Paparelli fully embraced "Two Gentlemen's" misguided teen spirit, imagining a world in which moneyed teens have run amok.

"I really wanted to leave it in its period," Paparelli says. "But I wanted to infuse it with a modern adolescent energy, with rich young men and women from a wealthy suburb."

"Two Gents" tells the story of Valentine and Proteus, friends who have abandoned small-pond Verona for Milan. There, Valentine falls for beautiful trust-funder Sylvia, whose father has another suitor in mind. Before the couple can sneak off together, Proteus betrays his friend. Though he has a love back home, he covets Sylvia and will do anything to win her. And the person he employs to help him? The very girlfriend he's cheating on.

To suit the scene - crazy kids exploring the big city with the recklessness of college freshmen armed with credit cards - set designer Walt Spangler and Paparelli created a Milan that looks a little like a beckoning Times Square. It's aglow with teenage temptations, from golden arches to liquor logos to ads for prophylactics.

"Because it's so much about young people, and Shakespeare himself was adventurous as a writer, we thought we'd be rebellious as well," Spangler says of the product placement. "We wanted to bring the whole design out into the theatre. We wanted to make sure we had bold gestures reaching out into the audience."

"Shakespeare is being very specific about the classes," Paparelli adds. "What are things that are important to teenagers? Money . . . fast food and technology and sex and music."

Music, in fact, may be the biggest way Paparelli is putting his stamp on "Two Gents," using it as means to fill in some of the oft-parsed flaws in Shakespeare's novice play.

"What we really tried to do," he says, "was say, 'Okay, here's a modern kid, feeling these modern things, being pushed by their parents. . . . What are the songs about frustration and angst?' " So it is that rock anthems by Coldplay, Ben Folds and U2 blare from the rafters.

But don't call this a musical.

Shakespeare Theatre will deliver that separately, in concert performances of the actual musical version of the play, "Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera)," a diverse, freewheeling tale set in 1970s New York. Laced with funk music, hints of disco and Latin sounds, the Tony-winning 1971 musical (incidentally, it beat out "Follies'') shares the same free-form exuberance as "Hair," says the show's director, Amanda Dehnert. Part of the theater's "Bard's Broadway" series, the musical will be staged just a handful of times Jan. 27-29, but it will offer "Two Gents" fans a chance to experience the play in two radically different ways. "What's cool about Shakespeare," Dehnert says, "is that any artist can bring a point of view to it."

For Paparelli, the attraction to "Two Gents" was that it seemed to complement the director's previous projects exploring chaotic teenage-hood, including "Romeo and Juliet" at Folger Theatre and his own play, "Columbinus," inspired by the Columbine High School shooting.

The characters in "Two Gents," he says, "have guns, and they're cutting and they're drinking. And where are the adults? We're so distracted by money and technology and the economy.

"It's important to me that any theater is a reflection of society and be some vehicle for social change," he adds. "I want people to see 'Two Gents' and definitely feel it's relevant today."