Ah, love. The kind that makes you stalk your lover, lie to your best friend, steal someone else’s girl. We’re talking young, hormone-addled, angst-ridden love. Add in some fervent karaoke singing, late night fast food binges and way beyond last call drinking, and it’s love in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Rarely performed (STC’s artistic fellow Laura Henry notes in Asides that it’s only been staged twenty-four times in London and five times in New York City), Two Gentlemen is commonly thought of as difficult to produce. It’s an early play in the canon, containing many characters and plot devices that seem half-baked next to their later manifestations. There’s also the question of that pesky final scene – which moves from the threat of violence and rape to forgiveness all too quickly – often tinkered with to make it more palatable. It’s always been a prime candidate for conceptual settings and modernization.
Director PJ Paparelli goes for a pastiche of teen movie metaphor in the current production. It’s a risky choice to add in neon corporate logos and U2 cover songs. That kind of concept can, and often does, fall flat. But here, a kind of pure earnest beauty marries text and concept. Kick your cynicism to the curb, and remember that time when love meant losing everything, including even your self-respect, and yet you just didn’t care that it wasn’t cool.
For best friends Valentine and Proteus (Andrew Veenstra and Nick Dillenburg), the raucous bromance of youth is about to be disrupted by love – Proteus for Julia (Miriam Silverman), Valentine for Sylvia (Natalie Mitchell), then Proteus for Sylvia and back again. Leaving behind the parking lots of suburbia for the glamorous clubs of the big city, they’ll find alliances challenged and changed by the heightened risk of falling in love and growing up. When the plot’s laid out this simply it does scan like a teenage romance movie, though the reverberations of greater works to come – a bit of Romeo in Valentine, a shade of Iago in Proteus – suggest more depth than you might initially think. But above all, Two Gentlemen is a comedy, and the boys’ servants provide a lot of it. Valentine’s skateboarding messenger Speed (Adam Green) and Proteus’ woeful courier Launce (Euan Morton, bravely playing off a scene-stealing dog) keep the mayhem in balance with brilliant comedic timing that proves Elizabethean humor can still get laughs.
Paparelli’s concept is ably aided by Walt Spangler’s glitzy design, all gleaming metal and thrusting catwalks, like a disco dystopia. Paul Spadone’s risky Elizabethean hybrid costumes add a touch of 1980’s music video kitsch. And a special nod to Fabian Obispo’s sound design for taking risks (how do we know Proteus is the one who’ll turn bad? He listens to Rage Against the Machine!) that caught the audience off guard.
Though at times the modernization rings painfully earnest (anguished arm cutting during a U2 cover borders on the excruciatingly earnest, though it does serve to alert the viewer we’re about to go somewhere much darker), its pay off at other times is rich. The vigor of the actors’ commitment to making the text immediate and vibrant makes this a powerfully funny and poignant production. Their conviction to bringing the forceful danger of fickle youth to life make for moments of truth you wouldn’t expect from a “lesser” Shakespeare play. It comes through with a punch to the gut when the comedy turns. It’s both hilarious and hopeful, just like those coming-of-age movies you made light of but secretly loved.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona performs at Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre now through March 4. The Lansburgh is located at 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Archives/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines) and Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red/Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-637-7000.