The real test of a Shakespeare company may not be how it handles the best of the plays, but what it does with the least of them.
So by all means, experience the delightful, illuminating sheen that Fiasco Theater applies to “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” believed to be one of Shakespeare’s inaugural comedies, a farcical forerunner of “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It.” With a mere six actors and barrels of charm, the New York-based ensemble, in a Folger Theatre world premiere, deftly takes us back with its sleek aesthetic to one of drama’s earliest examples of romantic comedy.
Romance is indeed everything in “Two Gentlemen”: this is a play in which every third word seems to be “Love.” It’s chewed over by every character — except for Crab the dog, embodied here with tied-on snout and rakish glint by Zachary Fine. That it’s a subject more glibly discussed than satisfyingly integrated into the plot underlines an impression that the playwright was honing rather than mastering his technique. Yet directors Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld approach the text with such a light touch and becoming intelligence that they confer on their “Two Gentlemen” a surprisingly economical elegance.
Fiasco came to public attention a few years ago in New York with a widely admired “Cymbeline,” a production that will be revived at Folger for a short run in late May, after “Two Gentlemen” concludes. The group recently unveiled a “Measure for Measure” at Manhattan’s New Victory Theater with mostly the same sextet of actors in a streamlined treatment that sharply and entertainingly unraveled the play’s moral complexities.
Its “Two Gentlemen” reaffirms the sense that Fiasco is doing justice to Shakespeare in a wholly and excitingly contemporary way. In these young players’ hands, demystification is an art. Fiasco does not resort to high-concept Shakespeare, a practice that has reached epidemic proportions at some classical companies. Among its tools are careful compression, deep investigation of character, a pleasure in the gestalt of ensemble work, and a firm belief that the plays are meant to be, well, accessible fun.
Thus far, the group has been marrying these skills and values exclusively to the comic variety of Shakespeare; how its easygoing style might work for, say, “Macbeth,” is an experiment yet to be tried. (It also has its revival of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical “Into the Woods” on the docket for the Roundabout Theatre Company.) In any event, the troupe’s unpretentious vigor feels like such a good match for warm, close-quartered Folger you wish Fiasco’s actors would be granted — and accept — a permanent perch there.
Now’s your opportunity to witness how they genially upholster one of Shakespeare’s more sparsely furnished plays, the story of two callow Veronese guys and how passion messes with their heads and their friendship. It begins with Proteus (solid Noah Brody) in love with Julia (the lovely Austrian) and Valentine (a smashing Fine) with Sylvia (the equally fetching Emily Young). Owing to pure, head-scratching contrivance, both men end up competing for just one of the women, with Proteus becoming so smitten he conspires to have his rival banished. A betrayal for which he’s so quickly forgiven you’ll wonder if ages ago a couple of pivotal pages from the folio weren’t mislaid.
James Kronzer’s set is little more than a polished wood floor; the minimal embellishment extends to the occasional underscoring by various actors on guitar and cello. (A hearty rendition of the bluegrass song “The Blackest Crow” is sung as a greeting by the cast.) This all serves “Two Gentlemen” particularly well, because the permutations of love in the play are rather chaste and fairly abstract. That costume designer Whitney Locher clothes everyone in suits and dresses in the color of innocence seems entirely apt.
The abstractions include Proteus’s amusingly bizarre shift of devotion from Julia — who follows him to Milan, disguised as a boy — to Sylvia. Ridiculously, Proteus falls for Sylvia without ever having met her, and this notion of love seeming to be truer by report than by deed is a motif throughout the play. Everyone is constantly writing, reading or sending letters about love, to the point at which words really do seem to speak louder than actions; as if to underline the power of paper emotion, the actors gather at a culminating moment to shower the stage in hundreds of pieces of stationery.
At Steinfeld and Austrian’s direction, the play is trimmed to a judicious two hours, an apportionment of time preventing the seams from showing too transparently. As low-born clowns and high-born nobles, Andy Grotelueschen and Paul L. Coffey provide indispensable support in this endeavor. They complete the superb team Fiasco fields for a dandy dissertation on love, with all of its trials and errors.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Whitney Locher; lighting, Tim Cryan. About two hours. Tickets, $40-$72. Through May 25 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE.
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