The Two Gentlemen of Verona Review
In the very first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Scarlet, a nervous Holmes asks his soon-to-be roommate John Watson whether he would be bothered by violin-playing in their apartment. Watson responds:
“’It depends on the player,’ I answered. ‘A well-played violin is a treat for the gods – a badly played one…’”
As it is for the violin, so it is for Shakespeare. The Bard’s works are intricate, oftentimes delicate beasts to perform, glorious in the hands of master thespians and unwatchable when performed by amateurs.
For The Two Gentlemen of Verona, perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most contentious works, this difficulty is doubled. The comedy, thought by some to be one of the Bard’s first works, is thought by many more to be one of his weakest and most tricky to stage. Contemporary companies taking on Two Gentlemen are faced with not only the challenge of delivering Shakespearean humor to a modern audience, but also with the task of deciding how to present its controversial ending.
So, then, how does the Hofstra University Department of Drama and Dance staging of Two Gentlemen fare? The production, a centerpiece of Hofstra’s 69th Annual Shakespeare Festival, is being performed on the school’s meticulously constructed Globe Stage, a recreation of Shakespeare’s famous regular venue, the Globe Theatre. The cast, clothed in foppish 17th-century attire and beginning the show with a bawdy old English drinking song, matches the locale perfectly. The stage is set, quite literally, for an entirely traditional Shakespearean performance much in line with last year’s Globe Stage performance of Hamlet.
Then the actors jump into the play itself. It quickly becomes evident that the textual requirements of Two Gentlemen, including its reliance on humor and its relatively minor status in the Bard’s canon, are not suited for a traditional Shakespearean performance. Fortunately, the company seems to have fully anticipated these obstacles and responds accordingly.
In Hofstra’s staging, the humor is played up, heavily, especially by already comedic characters like Speed (Michelle Pagano), Launce (Sam Kaufman), and Thurio (Bryan Raiton). Pagano’s upbeat verbosity, Kaufman’s excellent one-sided interplay with Launce’s “dog” Crab (in this staging, a worn stuffed animal), and Raiton’s freeform, foppish physicality draw in the largely contemporary audience to an extent that some of Shakespeare’s complex linguistic tricks cannot.
This heightened level of physical comedy injects a needed immediacy and levity into Two Gentlemen, but without the strong performances by the play’s principal actors, the production would surely have lost this sense of heightened rhythm. Thankfully, the four lead characters (the titular two gentlemen and their lovers) are played with impressive energy and a keen self-awareness.
Valentine (William Ketter), the first of the titular lovers and our ostensible hero, is not embodied as valiant, wise, or particularly powerful; Ketter instead infuses him with a certain nervous, excitable energy that works well during both comedic moments and lovelorn monologues. Proteus (Scott Mathews), the second lover and the play’s antagonist, is portrayed with a sense of heightened villainy that allows for the audience to quickly understand (and root against) the character. Both Valentine and Proteus are played with an intentional sense of arrogance that clearly expresses the short-sightedness of both characters.
The foppish two gentlemen are wonderfully counterbalanced by their two lovers. Sylvia (Beth Macallister), the object of the competing Valentine and Proteus’ affections, is presented as wise, clever, and unremittingly decisive. In many ways, the comprehensive wildness of Two Gentlemen’s characters is contrasted by Macallister’s levelheaded performance. Proteus’ spurned lover Julia (Lauren Dietzel) is another comedic highlight; Dietzel’s portrayal is especially commendable for its expert balancing of situational humor and the tragedy of romantic rejection.
Macallister and Dietzel’s performances particularly shine during the Two Gentlemen’s final scenes. Both actors carry the production’s comedic energy through to its natural endpoint in a staged climax that both faithfully portrays the work’s bizarre ending (in which Valentine attempts to physically give Sylvia to Proteus as a symbol of their healed friendship) and comments on its inherent sexism: Sylvia and Julia exit the stage at the end of the play arm-in-arm, leaving behind the inane, misogynistic foibles of the two “gentlemen”.
Hofstra’s Two Gentlemen is, then, not a traditional interpretation insomuch as it is a contemporary interpretation in traditional trappings. While it could certainly be argued that the Hofstra production is overambitious in its efforts to straddle both the self-awareness of a modern production and the nostalgic value of traditional Shakespeare, this is a facile conclusion. Rather, Two Gentlemen is shown here in a manner that respects the original text while openly acknowledging how it has aged. It is a performance that celebrates the traditions of the theatre while acknowledging the immutable faults of even the best works and writers.
To return to the Holmes analogy, it is worth noting that the difficulty of playing the violin is only intensified if the instrument itself is strangely made and showing signs of wear. However, if a musician is masterful enough, they can draw a beautiful tune out of the oddest of instruments. Despite significant obstacles, the company behind Hofstra’s Two Gentlemen of Verona has managed to draw out quite a beautiful tune, indeed.
The remaining performances of Hofstra’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona are playing at the John Cranford Adams Playhouse on the following dates: Friday, March 9 at 8pm, Saturday, March 10 at 8pm, and Sunday, March 11 at 2pm.