Two Gentlemen of Verona, Fiasco Theater at the Folger

Andy Grotelueschen stars as Lance in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo by Teresa Wood
"To be slow in words is a woman's only virtue... Happy Mother's Day!"

Thus spake Andy Grotelueschen as Lance, going through a list of his ladyfriend's virtues and vices in Fiasco Theater's production of Two Gentlemen of Verona in a performance on Sunday, May 11.  It's an unusual addition to Shakespeare's text, to be sure, but not an unwelcome one.  In fact, it demonstrates a number of things that Fiasco's production, running through the end of the month at the Folger, is doing very, very well.

For one, it's acknowledging the very real presence of the audience, something that all the wisest companies will do when performing Shakespeare.  I tend to heave a world-weary sigh when I hear audiences gobsmacked at a performer who "breaks the fourth wall" during Shakespeare; it makes me want to educate all the world in early modern staging practices even more than I usually do. A thrust only has ONE wall, kids, and at a theatre like the Globe, you had the wealthiest patrons sitting right on top of it; it's the attempt to impose all those other walls that's the bigger issue and should warrant more discussion. Fiasco's production in particular makes the audience a welcome inevitability; when the entire play is performed by six actors, including the audience in on the conversation has the subtle bonus effect of swelling the ranks. It also makes us very conscious of the act of performance itself; when we see an actor sitting at the edge of the stage and putting an apron on over their costume, you can't forget the art of acting itself that's being performed for you.  They've done a wonderful job cutting the play down for their small cast, and have created some ingenious theatrical solutions which are a delight to watch.

By inserting that reference to Mother's Day, we're reminded that the performance is taking place for this particular us on this particular day.  It's also a nod to one of the play's most uncomfortable elements- the casual disregard for women that the male characters all display at one point or another, most egregious in Proteus.  It's one of the things that makes Gentlemen hard to stage nowadays, and companies struggle to find a balance between acknowledging the darker elements of the play and trying to leave the audience satisfied with the marriages Shakespeare leaves us with.  A few years ago, the Shakespeare Theatre Company's solution was to heap some extra darkness in the earlier acts and then rush through the danger at the end, which can leave the audience turning to each other, asking, Wait, didn't Proteus just try to...?  Local DC company Brave Spirits embraced the challenge of committing to the dark ending and left its audiences purposefully unsettled and unquiet.  So where on the spectrum does Fiasco fall?

Lucetta (Emily Young) tending to her mistress Julia (Jessie Austrian). Photo by Teresa Wood.

This production tries to have its cake and eat it, too, to an extent.  As Julia, co-director Jessie Austrian  (sharing the credit with other company member Ben Steinfeld) is so gosh-darn likable that the audience is firmly on her side when Proteus begins to stray, and we see her genuine anger mounting against the man she loves at his betrayal.  Emily Young's Sylvia demonstrates a palpable goodness; however much her loveliness attracts admirers, her Sylvia is grounded, good-hearted, and adamantly fair.  Grotelueschen can securely make his Mother's Day joke because we all, actors and audience alike, are feeling uncomfortable with the casual misogyny on display. Fiasco tries to keep a sense of humor throughout the proceedings with a lot of success (this will forever be my favorite Crab, for instance, and the entire "Who is Sylvia" song had me guffawing)

Can the light touch hold up the weight of the play's finale? (Avert your eyes if you don't want to be spoiled) (no really, think about it, because while you may know the plot, do you want to know my reaction to this specific staging?) To my taste, Austrian and Steinfeld try a little too hard to sidestep past the problems of the final scene.  They bring the moment to what it is- an attempted rape- but have Valentine leap in to the rescue and take the focus of the scene back away.  This way, we won't be dwelling on the danger so much as we're ready to call him a manly hero and worthy of marrying Sylvia and bringing Proteus and Julia back together.  It's sleight of hand to get us back on happier footing so we can end with a song, and to be honest, I find it a little disappointing.  Can't we feel the impact of what's just happened?  Sylvia may have escaped the immediate danger, but her fiance has just happily forgiven his old friend moments later without much regard for her own wishes or well being; Julia may still love Proteus, but is she truly ready to marry him after what she's just seen him attempt? I do genuinely ask these questions, because I don't think that we gain anything by avoiding them.  But then, my favorite productions have always been the ones that dig into the darkness and the silences in these "happy" endings, so it's not surprising that I would wish for a little more fallout before the lights face to black.

At the end of the day, this is a wonderful Two Gentlemen of Verona. I was thrilled to walk into the Folger and see that James Kronzer's scenic design left the beautiful Folger stage open for us to see.  Whitney Locher's costumes are simple and adaptable, exactly the thing for a fast-moving six person ensemble.  Austrian and Steinfeld have crafted a remarkable production of a difficult play, and done so with grace and a good deal of fun. If I don't think it's perfect, that only means that I've got all the more reason to keep coming back to this play, which I'm grateful for. Plus- Fiasco is putting on its Cymbeline for only five days right on the cusp of May and June, and I'm terrifically excited to see what they have in store for us.  I STRONGLY recommend you check them out, and then come tell me if I'm wrong about the final scene- did it work for you?  Am I a grumpypants who only wants to wallow and wouldn't know redemption if it forgave me to my face? Who else is coming to Cymbeline, and will I be able to buy official Fiasco Cymbal-ines in the gift shop?


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