The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Great River Shakespeare Festival

June, 2012

Ryan Fonville, Evan Fuller

Verona hums along at the Great River Shakespeare Festival – and not just because of Milwaukee composer Jack Forbes Wilson’s catchy music and arrangements.  Director Paul Mason Barnes sets the play in the late 1950s, and it works.

“Barnes’ staging relies on ingenious sight gags and clever vignettes, many of which revolve around games – an apt metaphor for what’s going on among the young lovers and their quick-witted servants.

“Fuller and Fonville” (Proteus and Valentine) do “justice to the light and the dark in their characters’ troubled friendship, allowing us to see Verona as an early draft of a theme Shakespeare would frequently revisit, all the way through to ‘The Winter’s Tale’.”

    Mike Fischer

    Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“All that starts well ends well at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona.  The opening weeend performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona started with singing and showmanship and closed with a lovely set piece, followed by more singing.

“This is Shakespeare?  Yes it is, exactly as you like it.  Don’t worry purists, the words, the wordplay, the puns, the story arc are all still there.  But the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues to show that Shakespeare need not be stuffy and incomprehensible.

“Along the way, this company, led by music director Jack Forbes Wilson, has developed a finely tuned sense of how music can complement and enhance the productions.

“It helps, of course, when The Two Gentlemen of Verona is set during the 1950s, as director Paul Barnes has chosen to do.  That allows the cast to open – and close – with a couple of Sam Cooke songs, “Cupid” and “Wonderful World.”  And since the play is set in Italy, we even get a verse sung in Italian.

“As always at the Great River festival, the acting is subtly superb.  Characters come to life, their traits are quickly established, and there is rarely a noticeable wobble.

“Still haven’t made it to the Great River Shakespeare Festival?  This production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona would be the ideal introduction.  It’s a crowd-pleaser from start to finish.”

    Tom Weber

    Rochester Post-Bulletin

“Director Paul Mason Barnes’ love of the text and stories of Shakespeare shines out in this simple tale of four young people whose passions tempt them into risky decisions.  

“Barnes’ handling of Shakespeare’s comedies always has an underlying core of truth and consequences.  We are well aware that the characters have each gone on a life journey that has fundamentally changed them.

“A beautifully spare and elegant set, designed by Eric Stone, is perfect for the story, and the costumes by Meg Weedon are 1950’s chic.  Barnes likes music in his plays and has collaborated with the brilliant Jack Forbes Wilson to bring a perfect mixture of 1950’s pop, Italian crooner tunes, and some lovely original music to the production.  It’s always a thrill to hear the terrific singing voices of these GRSF company members.”

    Kathy Peterson

    Winona Post


What I learned. . .

This was actually my fourth production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but the first time I directed the play (at Stockton Civic Theatre in Stockton, California) almost doesn’t count, as I was a young, untried, and very green director.  It’s interesting though that the hard lessons of a less-than-successful first outing with the play have stuck with me and informed my work to this day.  Mostly these have to do with staging: making sure the action is fluid -- that no matter what setting you choose for the play you don’t kill the story’s inherent momentum by taking time for unnecessary set-up and strike of set pieces and props, always insuring that the language rarely drops for extraneous stage business.

My next outings with Two Gents were more successful (Utah Shakes; APT), and the Great River production was informed by the growth in my experience, skill, and understanding of the play.  

I love this story, mostly because it reminds me of a tender time in our lives: that literal or metaphoric last summer of adolescence before adult cares begin to burden us.  I’ve seen productions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona in which it’s clear the director held the play in contempt, probably because it’s an early work in which Shakespeare’s writing was less sophisticated and his characters less complicated, and because the ending of the play is swift, inexplicable, and at odds with modern sensibilities.

Rather than avoiding these challenges, it seemed better to grapple with them and try to discover a way to make them understandable to playgoers, without necessarily asking for an audience’s acceptance of the play’s tricky resolution (or lack thereof).

Two Gents depends on our understanding of a set of moral-social values that are lost to us today, based in the notion that the friendship between two young men is the purist form of love because it is unsullied by the act of sexual congress.  According to behavioral codes of the time, if one best friend betrays the other and then apologizes for his betrayal, it’s incumbent on the friend who has been betrayed not only to accept the apology and forgive his friend, but to also make a sacrifice that demonstrates the depth of his loyalty.  This is exactly what happens between Proteus and Valentine in the course of Two Gents; the title characters  simply behave according to commonly recognized and accepted moral-social codes.

The trick then, becomes to flesh out decisions and actions and give them time to breathe, which is what we worked to do, especially in the play’s difficult final scene.  Framing the story with playful, guy-guy tussling in the first scene and hammer-and-tongs, going-for-blood, scuffling-in-earnest in the last scene helped track the boys’ journey.  If the comments of a number of people who saw the production can be trusted, we succeeded in making the play more palatable to contemporary audiences. Many people told me they never really liked The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but our production at Great River helped change their minds – or at least made them reconsider the play’s worth.

Our late-1950’s setting accomplished several things.  It enabled us to incorporate pop music into the action, and it also grounded the production in an era (perhaps the last in contemporary America) that had its own moral-social codes and expected forms of behavior.  The setting also provided a stark contrast with King Lear, which we gave a more traditional, primitive, pre-Christian look.

Once again I learned that even with his earlier, less complex scripts, it takes more than one experience with the play to comprehend its depths and bring the story to life.  It’s been my good fortune to get to revisit many of Shakespeare’s scripts more than once and to apply lessons from past productions to work on new ones – and to make a whole new series of mistakes which I can correct the next time I get to direct the play.