Perhaps there’s no such thing as Free Love. Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble’s small-scale production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona sought to tackle the contradictions in the play by setting it in Italy’s turbulent 1970s, where the rustic old world met the cosmopolitan fashion scene, and the hippie movement bumped up against the influence of the Mafia. The young people who populated Kelsey Harrison and Beth Somerville’s co-directed production may have idealistically embraced the ideals of peace and love, but the darker edges of this world made it easy for those lovers to turn quickly to violence and threat. In doing so, this Two Gents found its stakes in what gets lost through the process of growing up in a less-than-ideal world.
The free-loving world of Verona was where ideals did, at least in part, thrive. A fun coffee- house-set induction introduced the major cast: a (literally) juggling Proteus (Andrew Steven Knight), a roller-skating Valentine (Madison Rudolph), a mandolin-playing Julia (Kailey Potter). Their servants were more beleaguered: Launce (Katelyn Spurgin) was dragged around the stage by an empty collar on a leash representing Crab; Lucetta (Spurgin again) held out a cigarette in rebuke and knocked one of Proteus’s balls out of his hands as she pulled Julia away from him; and Speed (Dylan Mabe) hilariously appeared with ever-increasing amounts of bags, yet still offered to take Proteus’s letter to Julia in his mouth (a somewhat disgusted Proteus found a better solution). The leisure of the young people bespoke a lack of responsibility that was, at least in part, displaced onto the labors of their servants, who already lived in a world of chores and duties. The move to Milan came with the inevitability of duty; in particular, Proteus’s angst at being torn away from Julia at the behest of his father (Mabe again) carried with it the petulance of denial – a petulance that would become crucial to his later reactions to not getting what he wanted.
The value of the induction in showing the pre-existing community of Verona (in which Valentine even got to briefly interact with Julia) was to emphasize their separation. Valentine and Proteus shared a deep bond, represented in their elaborate footshake/handshake/leapfrog ritual, but more powerfully in their firm, deeply held embraces and backslaps. Rudolph’s Valentine was a solid, constant presence, whose stability of purpose contrasted with Knight’s kinetic, energy-expending Proteus. Valentine’s constancy was utterly adorable; this was by far the most winsome Valentine I’ve ever seen, and his disco-ball-infused meet-cute with Sylvia (Spurgin) and subsequent confusion at Sylvia’s plot painted him as hilariously guileless. Rudolph’s wide eyes and delighted smile made sense of Sylvia’s attraction to him; in the high-fashion world of Milan, where she was accompanied by a trench coat and fedora-wearing Sir Eglamour (Potter) who carried her piles of shopping bags, Valentine’s simplicity and openness marked him as special. But this guilelessness was also what made Valentine vulnerable, and as such, Valentine’s tragedy was having to change in order to live in this world.
The humor and pathos of Valentine’s guilelessness came out, perhaps, most effectively when he was caught red-handed by the Duke. In the alley staging of the Wharf Loft, Sylvia’s window was imagined to be in an upper corner at one end of the stage; the Duke (Potter), a mob boss with sinister control over his dominion, waited for him in a chair at the far end of the stage. As Valentine unraveled the rope ladder to begin climbing, the Duke announced his presence from his position of power, leaving Valentine scrambling to quickly hide the ladder under his own coat. The subsequent interrogation was both hilarious, as Valentine desperately tried to hold the partially unraveled ladder hidden under his coat, but also crushingly inevitable as both Duke and Valentine went through the motions of revelation; by the time the Duke forced Valentine to drop the ladder to the floor, the laughter had ended. Rudolph’s powerful soliloquy was crushing in light of the character’s open honesty earlier; falling to his knees to pick up the letter that the Duke had torn up in front of him, the breaking of Valentine’s good humor beautifully captured the cruelty of Proteus’s transformations.
Proteus was never steady. He was good-humored in Verona, but driven by his own passions, and even as earlier as the third scene, found himself caught out as he enthused about his love for Julia to the audience without even noticing his father and Panthino (Rudolph) waiting to send him away. On arrival in Milan, he was unable to conceal his open-mouthed wonder at the chic Sylvia. But in contrast to his best friend, he was able to adjust himself to the moment. He quickly switched off his appreciation of Sylvia to focus on greeting his friend, and waited until he was alone with the audience to reveal his thoughts. Knight’s handling of Proteus’s two soliloquies was masterful. Using the alley stage to spatialize his thought process – with the imagined Julia at one end and Sylvia at the other – Knight physically travelled back and forth, torn between the love he was preparing to abandon and the love he was preparing to embrace. He allowed the key turning points of the soliloquies to land hard, with gasps audible from a rapt audience as he justified his choice to abandon Julia and treat her as dead; the moment where he slowly removed his ring hit with especial force. And as he committed to his decision, the vacillating Proteus suddenly inhabited his new role, drawing himself up straight, and walking off with purpose.
Proteus’s ability to ingratiate himself distinguished him from Valentine. The Duke (who was repeatedly introduced to Nino Rota’s Godfather theme in a perfectly on-the-nose cue, and entered with smoking jacket draped over his shoulders) was a dominant, central figure in his first appearance, with Valentine, the moody Thurio (Mabe), and the obedient daughter Sylvia all standing respectfully in his presence. But it was Proteus who not only dressed Potter as the Godfather at the top of 3.1, in one of a number of onstage transformations necessitated by the tight doubling, but then knelt to kiss the Don’s ring, performing the respect that gave him access to the Duke’s inner confidences. Similarly, where Valentine’s open dismissal of Mabe’s Thurio had only angered the hot-headed preferred suitor earlier (in one of the show’s funniest moments, Mabe entered briefly after Valentine’s banishment to pick up the rope ladder, smiling nastily at the forlorn man, and then exited walking backwards to enjoy his temporary victory for as long as possible), Proteus was able to ingratiate himself with Thurio, setting up the wooing at Sylvia’s window. This show-stopping song – which brought the whole ensemble together as Thurio’s back-up band – was already very entertainingly staged: collective stomping to summon Sylvia followed by expectant pauses gave way to full-throated returns to a chorus, while Proteus wrangled a rowdy and howling Crab. But on opening night, the fact that Thurio’s tambourine also exploded in his hand only added to the hilarity, especially as Thurio continued enthusiastically trying to keep time with the remaining shards. The production couldn’t have asked for a happier accident; nothing could have better represented the futility of Thurio’s wooing, and Proteus’s skill in somehow still managing to reassure Thurio that everything was going to plan against all the evidence.
The only people who fully saw through Proteus were, of course, the women. Spurgin’s excellent Sylvia was all coyness and class as she walked across the stage in the public streets of Milan, though when in the presence of her father she became demure, receding into the background. Sylvia came across most powerfully following the serenade, though. She stood at one end of the alley, looking down from her balcony before raising her eyes to meet those of Proteus, standing at the far end. Her straight-up calling-out of Proteus’s fickleness and emptiness dripped with scorn and force. Julia, meanwhile, was the production’s heart. In Verona, the dungaree-wearing Julia was – not unlike Proteus – full of energy that, here, manifested as anxiety. In contrast to the sassy, world-weary Lucetta, Julia fretted with her hands and displaced her unsurety onto the audience endearingly, first tearing up the letter that Lucetta had pointedly dropped and picked up in order to make a point, and then desperately sharing her piecing-together of the letter with the audience. But Potter’s Julia also had a fine line in self-aware wryness; no-one was a bigger critic of Julia than Julia herself, and as she shifted to Milan and took on the red cap that signified Sebastian, Julia kept largely to the edges of the stage, her asides to the audience representing the sense of loss – both of lover and of her own confidence – that prevented her from intervening or revealing herself. In their touching scene together, Sylvia’s kind words to Sebastian brought Julia slightly more out of herself, taking center stage and drawing comfort from the picture of Sylvia that she decided not to tear apart.
Alongside all of this was a sustained strand of hilarity amid the servant figures that drew comedy from the performance of duty. Mabe has simply marvelous comic timing, and his grumpy, put-upon Speed was a constant delight of huffing and muttering, which gave way to mischief when he demanded money from Proteus or delighted in slowly, painstakingly walking his dull master Valentine through Sylvia’s trick with the letter. But Speed met his match in Launce. Spurgin’s one-woman shows as Launce drew heavily on the audience (often co-opted as temporary dog-sitters, holding Crab’s empty leash) and on physical comedy with props, as with her demonstrative arguments with her own shoes, or her lovely set-piece leaning on her own staff. When the two were put together for Speed to read out the attributes of Launce’s intended from the local newspaper, Launce pulled Speed into exactly the kind of caustic commentary he was susceptible to giving, turning all of his acerbic remarks back on him as Launce embraced this entirely unsuitable love – before then getting his revenge by revealing he’d been keeping Speed all this time from going to meet his master. The small victories won by the servants against their masters felt earned. A shout-out, too, to Potter’s Eglamour, whose costume changes were introduced with the Mission: Impossible theme as Eglamour threw on trench coat and hat to begin his secret missions on Sylvia’s behalf.
The shift to the outskirts of Milan began the production’s endgame, with the introduction of Knight’s surreal and supremely entertaining performance of the three Outlaws. Jumping between representations of a tiny, malicious Outlaw 1, a civilized Outlaw 2, and an enormous giant who was Outlaw 3 (I couldn’t help but think of Vizzini, Inigo, and Fezzik), Knight created the forest as a place of displaced souls; his evil little Outlaw 1 probably seemed like a good candidate for banishment, while Outlaw 3 was able to pick up the tiny Vespa tricycle on which the Outlaws rode. In encountering them, Valentine showed that he had learned the sad but necessary ability to lie, as he fitted himself to the moment and joined them, taking on the persona of a banished murderer. The Outlaws were a bit creepy – especially in the brief scene of Sylvia bound to the tricycle and being carried away by them – but fundamentally benign, with even malignant Outlaw 1 looking for forgiveness.
This all led to the sensitively handled final scene, which began very entertainingly as Proteus entered, beating up the jacket worn by the Outlaws before throwing it off to the sound of a perfectly executed Wilhelm Scream. But thereafter, the scene begin deeply serious. Proteus shook with confusion and anger as Sylvia berated him for beating up the Outlaws and for imposing himself on her. Fueled by the adrenaline of the fight, Proteus genuinely couldn’t understand why she was not behaving as women were meant to behave; Sylvia, though, repeatedly emphasized that it was Proteus individually who was the problem, not men and certainly not women. And so, having succeeded so far in fitting himself to what was expected of him, Proteus made one final gesture to fit himself to a new role, and grabbed Sylvia violently. Knight and Spurgin’s careful handling of this scene allowed it to develop naturally from what they’d already established without feeling like a sudden transformation. But then, Valentine’s interruption, placing himself between Proteus and Sylvia, acted like a bucket of cold water on Proteus, who kneeled to the floor and begged forgiveness as Valentine escorted Sylvia away. Valentine turned, and then turned back to Sylvia, who gave him the nod. As Valentine embraced Proteus, “all that is mine in Sylvia” clearly indicated, not that he was giving Sylvia to Proteus, but rather that he was recommitting his own love to his friend, with Sylvia’s permission. The fact that Valentine refused the footshake that Proteus tentatively offered suggested that things had changed – there was no returning to the innocence of their youth – but that there was hope here for a more mature relationship, colored by what they had been through, but both wiser.
The return to joy, through the dizziness (literal) of Potter’s fainting Julia and Proteus’s rediscovery of his original love, and then through the forgiveness of the jubilant Outlaws, was followed by a disco jig to close. The nostalgia of this production, though, was not simply rosy. The hilarity of the ensemble’s set-pieces and jokes were a reminder of youthful joy, but the emotional stakes found by the company offered a simultaneous reminder of what happens when the laughter stops. The choices we make have consequences, and there can be no straightforward return to how things used to be; but, the production suggested, the willingness to forgive and to be forgiven – if not to forget – offers hope that the darkness can be kept at bay.
This review was developed while working with Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble through rehearsals, as part of a process of embedded criticism.