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The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Fiasco Theater takes Shakespeare's debut play to Brooklyn.

Zachary Fine as Crab the dog and Andy Grotelueschen as Launce in Fiasco Theater's production of William Shakespeare's comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
(© Gerry Goodstein)

The stationery is almost as plentiful as the drippy words of love in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, presented by Fiasco Theater's troupe of endearing misfits at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. After several months of Sondheim in its Drama Desk Award-nominated revival of Into the Woods with the Roundabout, Fiasco returns to its Shakespearean wheelhouse with the Bard's (presumably) first and (arguably) flimsiest play, which it originally performed at Washington, D.C.'s Folger Theatre. The simple story of love, friendship, betrayal, and head-scratchingly abrupt forgiveness leaves much for its interpreters to reconcile. But in the style that has been slowly charming all of New York City, the folks of Fiasco do so with a whimsical levity, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and a stage that's been stripped down to its skivvies.

Even more than its understated Into the Woods, the company pares down The Two Gentleman of Verona to its barest bones, with just an encompassing mosaic of crumpled love letters to set the Italian scene (a simple yet striking design by Derek McLane, complementing Whitney Locher's muted contemporary costumes). These amorous notes find themselves at the heart of the conflict that buds between the story's quartet of conflicted lovers. Proteus (Noah Brody) kicks off the story with his first pining love letter to the beautiful Julia (Jessie Austrian, who codirects with Ben Steinfeld). His head-over-heels passion, however, shifts on a hairpin turn to the Duke's daughter Siliva (Emily Young), who happens to be the object of his best friend Valentine's undying affections (a charmingly smitten Zachary Fine). As the knot slowly untangles itself, passionate letters are passed, intercepted, torn to shreds, and mourned over with delightful melodrama.

Even as Julia, like an impulsive schoolgirl, tears up her first note from her beloved Proteus, her immaturity is lovably vulnerable — particularly during Austrian's wonderfully neurotic episode of periodic sobs as she caresses the tiny shards of paper. On the contrary, Young's Silvia is a beautifully poised woman, not to mention the only one of the lovesick fools able to maintain a grounded sense of morality and reason throughout the upheaval. Love justifies Proteus' infidelity to both Valentine and Julia, inspires Valentine's mission to steal Silvia away from her towering prison, and instigates Julia's investigatory trip to Milan disguised as a man. Silvia, meanwhile, finds an anchor in her love for Valentine. She is horrified by Proteus' betrayal of her beloved and shoots the audience knowing glances as all is swiftly forgiven at Shakespeare's tidy ending. It's a resolution verging on the absurd, and the company seizes the low-hanging fruit, mining even more laughs from an already crowd-pleasing and expertly delivered script.

Brody, as the play's most blatantly despicable character, can do little to save Proteus' reputation in the audience's eyes, but delivers his concluding "boys will be boys" speech with delightful contrition and a hint of self-mockery that does not go unappreciated. Andy Grotelueschen, however, steals the show as Launce, Proteus' foolish servant, accompanied by Fine as his dog Crab (though Paul L. Coffey also offers a comic performance as Valentine's servant Speed). Each of Grotelueschen's moments onstage is like a jolt of energy for the entire company. As he relishes the Shakespearean wordplay of the wise-cracking and subtly wise clown, a fresh flame ignites the playful spirit that will continue propel Fiasco Theater to the top of New York City's Shakespearean heap.