All words: Landon Randolph
Fiasco Theater’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at Folger Shakespeare Library is a sleek, no-frills production. In many ways, it’s perfect for this venue—there’s nothing unnecessary, nothing extra. In short, there is nothing that pulls your focus away from the language of the play and the quietly excellent ensemble performances. This is unadulterated, unpretentious Shakespeare, performed by people who know how to get out of the way, and let the play speak for itself.
There is no set to speak of, and no backstage, either. The cast sits quietly out of the way until their cue, visible at all times. The costumes aren’t flashy, and their muted pastel palette made me wonder if the actors had just gone directly onstage from their Easter brunch.
The play centers around two best friends, Proteus and Valentine, that travel to Verona and promptly fall in and out of love with the same women. There’s the usual cross dressing, disguises, and mistaken identity that marks a Shakespearean comedy, along with a colorful cast of supporting characters that that the principle actors take turns playing. It’s a formula that’s been so widely copied, that it no longer seems original (if it ever did) but that doesn’t matter—the caliber of the performances keep you engaged. Noah Brody’s Proteus is suitably slimy and self-absorbed, pushing his caddishness just to the brink of being unsympathetic while never quite overstepping that line.
Julia, played by Jessie Austrian, is sensitive and warm while being hilariously juvenile in her understanding of her romantic relationships—her pouty scene with her maid Lucetta (Emily Young, who also plays Sylvia) is a highlight of the show. By far the best part of the show, however, are the secondary characters. Zachary Fine’s Valentine is excellent, but his turn as the dog Crab is better. Andy Grotelueschen manages to change between the gravitas of the Duke and the bumbling idiocy of the servant Lance without missing a beat.
There is a casualness, a comfortable familiarity about this show that belies the work necessary for this effortless effect. In many ways, this is a difficult play to perform: it turns out it’s pretty difficult to go from attempted rape to a happy, marriage filled denouement in the space of about 5 minutes, and there are many productions that would easily get bogged down in these difficulties. This one glides over such snags with a laid-back aplomb. It has the easy and fun-filled air of an amateur performance, while maintaining a polish that sets it apart.