The Fiasco Theater continues its mission “to offer dynamic, joyful, actor-driven productions of classic and new plays” with a dynamic, joyful, actor-driven production of what is believed to be Shakespeare’s first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The New York City–based company of Brown graduates, which has previously staged Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, and this past season’s utterly delightful, Drama Desk–nominated Into the Woods, has stripped down Shakespeare’s early comedy of letters and loyalty, mistaken identity and misplaced love, many elements of which would be explored more deeply in his future works, to its bare essentials. “Upon delving into it we quickly discovered that Two Gents is not merely a ‘shallow story,’ like those that Valentine mocks in the first scene, but a human and layered play that reveals questions and ideas of surprising depth,” a directors note in the program explains. While that might be a bit of a stretch, Fiasco does reveal Two Gents to be a fun-filled frolic through romantic folly. As the play opens, Valentine (Zachary Fine) is telling his compatriot Proteus (Noah Brody) that he is leaving Verona to court a fair lady. “To Milan let me hear from thee by letters / Of thy success in love, and what news else / Betideth here in absence of thy friend. / And I likewise will visit thee with mine,” Valentine declares. Proteus wishes him well, but because of a mix-up with Valentine’s servant, Speed (Paul L. Coffey), Proteus soon turns away from his true love, Julia (codirector Jessie Austrian), and decides instead to woo Valentine’s intended, Sylvia (Emily Young). But Sylvia’s father, the Duke of Milan (Andy Grotelueschen), favors her wealthy suitor Thurio (Coffey), setting off a three-way fight for her hand. “Sir, if you spend word for word with me, I shall make your wit bankrupt,” Thurio says, to which Valentine retorts, “I know it well, sir. You have an exchequer of words and, I think, no other treasure.” But as Speed has previously told Valentine, “Love is blind,” leading to a frantic conclusion.
Set designer Derek McLane (Into the Woods, The Heiress) has covered the ceiling, walls, and backdrop with hundreds of crumpled-up handwritten letters; the stage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center also features two white columns that serve as trees, in addition to benches on either side where the actors sit when not involved in the action (and seem to enjoy everything onstage as much as the crowd does). Regular Fiasco costume designer Whitney Locher has dressed the performers in springtime pastels,1950s-prepster style, the men sporting color-coded saddle-shoe bucks, the women in lacy cap-sleeves. Codirectors Austrian and Ben Steinfeld have the cast speak Shakespeare’s lines in contemporary rhythm, not iambic pentameter, giving it a more intimate feel and quickening the pace. The company is uniformly excellent — a particular treat is Launce’s (Grotelueschen) two monologues with his dog, Crab, played with great humor by Fine wearing a fake nose — singing a few songs and, before the first act and during intermission, mingling with the audience, giving out smiles and hugs. As is Fiasco’s style, the whole production is filled with an intoxicating affection, which works extremely well with one of Shakespeare’s lesser, though plenty charming, comedies. (The May 16 matinee will be followed by a free TFANA Talk with Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender author Alisa Solomon and members of the company. And after the May 17 matinee, food historian Francine Segan will host “Shakespeare Primavera,” a Talk & Taste inspired by Shakespeare’s Italian plays, catered by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Events; tickets are $45, or $35 if you attended the show or have a season package.)