- Two Gentlemen of Verona
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In his program notes to Two Gentlemen of Verona, director Ralph Alan Cohen (co-founder of the American Shakespeare Center) promised audiences the “delight” of “being there,” and the play fulfilled this promise abundantly. Performed on a bare stage in Renaissance costume, Two Gentlemen featured an exceptionally strong ensemble cast that exploited all its possibilities for humor: a preening Thurio with a yellow and red codpiece; a Duke of Milan in a doge hat whose frequently upraised arms revealed both a desire for control and an inability to maintain it; and the antics of Speed, Launce, and Launce’s dog Crab. Crab got laughs for wagging his tail in response to Launce’s overwrought melancholy, and also offered the occasional opportunity for his master’s witty ad libs (“Make yourself comfortable”; “We’re going to the bar”). Launce also enjoyed a great comic rapport with Speed, whose broad range included nods to rap and Groucho Marx. The pair repeatedly made light of the play’s events, and of themselves, by doubling over in a slow motion, synchronized pantomime of exaggerated laughter.
Amidst all of this comic levity, the four young protagonists began the play intent on preserving at least the appearance of propriety. Valentine first entered running onto the stage with Proteus on his shoulders, instantly signifying the two friends’ easy intimacy, and they would affectionately hug in private while publicly they maintained the decorum of proper gentlemen. Julia and Silvia, appearing in colorful brocaded gowns, sought to keep any trace of romantic vulnerability to themselves; when Julia was left alone with the fragments of a love letter she had torn up to save face, she delighted the audience by letting out a high-pitched shriek before rubbing the pieces together in increasing sexual excitement, culminating with a breathy “do what you will.” Silvia had her own games to play with letters, and she did so while maintaining the dignity of a circumspect lady.
Despite their initial companionship, Valentine and Proteus came to be clearly differentiated by their relationship to the audience. Naive and good natured, Valentine kept the audience’s sympathy and often shared its confused perspective. He needed an explanation from Speed of Silvia’s tricks with dropped gloves and letters, and, later, he got huge laughs when he responded to the Duke’s angry (and esoteric) comparison of him to the mythological Phaëton with an inserted “Huh?” Proteus, on the other [End Page 307] hand, developed a more complicated relationship with the audience after he set his sights on Silvia. The ASC’s practice of encouraging direct contact with the audience—so often used for comic effect, as later in the show when the outlaws stole candy or hats from those seated on the on-stage gallant stools—led in the case of Proteus to a deliberate discomfort. In two soliloquies immediately after Proteus fell in love with Silvia, he debated with himself while attempting to win the audience’s approval of what he clearly knew was self-serving reasoning. For example, after asserting, “Unheedful vows may heedfully be broken, / And he wants wit that wants resolved will / To learn his wit t’exchange the bad for better,” Valentine raised his hands to ask for a confirmation of his casuistic logic which the audience refused to give him.
A subtle difference also marked Julia’s and Silvia’s relationship with the audience. While Silvia was a model of aloofness, an object of others’ worship whose feelings never erupted into soliloquies, Julia gained the audience’s sympathy as they participated in her discovery of Proteus’s betrayal. During the singing...