The number of productions of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists has dwindled in recent years, even by supposed Shakespeare festivals in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere. One reason is that Shakespeare, if done traditionally, is expensive. It takes a lot of actors. Yet there is an audience for the Bard. Look at the sellout success on Broadway of productions of TWELFTH NIGHT and RICHARD III last season. Perhaps it's the attraction of British actors, even bad ones like Mark Rylance, but don't get me started on America's attraction to poor British actors like Rylance and Bill Nighy (a small bag of the same tics used over and over) or dull ones like those the Royal Shakespeare Company seems to hire these days. Often American actors do cleaner, better, more honest Shakespeare. One response to the expense of producing Shakespeare are small-scale, low budget productions like the current Fiasco Theater's TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA at the fine Polonsky Shakespeare Theatre in Brooklyn. Half a dozen actors playing multiple roles in simple, contemporary costumes on a bare stage framed by an appropriate, basic setting playing a somewhat cut text. In this case, the results were delightful.
TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA is a light play, though one filled with verbal wit. The play takes intense listening. It's about friendship, betrayal, real love and love as possession and, like Shakespeare's last plays, it very much centers on mercy and forgiveness. The happy ending may seem unearned to people who expect psychological realism, but the quality of mercy is central to Shakespeare's comedies and we see mercy acted out at the end of the play leading to reconciliation in what could have ended tragically. What I felt this production lost in some cases, was the kind of vocal range and dexterity I like to hear from classical actors. What one gained in this intimate space was commitment to character and situation, engagement with the text, and communication of a real love for the play and for theatrical "play." The actors talked on audience members before the play began and sat at the side of the playing area when they weren't "on." There was little attempt at old fashioned theatrical illusion, but rather something closer to the actor-audience relationship that was likely to exist in the Elizabethan theater, more strongly felt here than at the 2,000-plus seat Shakespeare's Globe in London. Derek McLane has created a lovely scenic background for the action. The backdrop is comprised of crumpled love letters, appropriate for this play in which rejected love letters play a crucial role. Most of the costumes were light colored (off white, beige,light blue of Sylvia, the leading female character) against the mostly white set. The lighting remained bright for most of the play.
Fiasco's production has been a critical and audience success. It makes a strong case for a play that is seldom performed and which many academic critics dismiss.
TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA. Polonsky Shakespeare Theater. May 24, 2015.