by Noelle Fair, OnStage New Jersey Critic “Don’t forget” said Meghan Blakeman, director of the Spicy Witches’ Production of Shakespeare’s early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I haven’t. . . . .
Two Gentlemen of Verona is the story of Valentine (Nick Bombacino), a young gentleman, who sets off from Verona for Milan to see the world. Despite Valentine's best efforts to persuade him to come too, Proteus (John Hardin), his best friend, stays at home because of his love for Julia (Mia Canter). She is in love with him too, but neither knows of the other's love until Lucetta (Rebecca Weiss), her maid, shows Julia a love letter from Proteus. Julia denies her feelings to her maid, but once alone reveals how strongly she feels about Proteus. Proteus is reading her reply when his father, Antonio, informs him of his decision to send him to Milan and the duke's court to join Valentine. The lovers take their leave and swear eternal constancy.
In Milan, Proteus finds that Valentine has fallen in love with Silvia (Kelly Karcher), the duke's daughter, and plans to elope with her to foil her father's plan to marry her to Thurio (Maren Fsiher). When Proteus sees his friend's beloved Silvia, he too falls completely in love with her and puts aside his feelings for Julia. Valentine confides his plans to elope to his friend but Proteus, who is now infatuated with Silvia too and betrays the plan to the duke (Danielle Jorn).Valentine is banished from Milan. In the wilderness Valentine encounters a band of outlaws and is elected their leader.
Meanwhile Julia, disguised as a page named Sebastian, comes to Milan in search of her beloved Proteus. Overhearing him declare his passion for Silvia, she is devastated but, under cover of her disguise, enters his service as a page. When Proteus sends Julia/Sebastian with a message to Silvia, Julia is encouraged to find that his advances are rejected and that Silvia remains faithful to Valentine. Silvia escapes into the forest to join Valentine. The duke and Thurio (Silvia's betrothed) set out in pursuit, followed by Proteus and Julia (still disguised as a page). Silvia is captured by the outlaws but then rescued by Proteus who, seeing that she still spurns him, tries to force himself on her. Valentine intervenes and Proteus is forced to confront his act of betrayal. Julia faints and in so doing reveals her identity and prompts Proteus to remember his feelings for her.
Reconciliation begins.. . . .or, in this case, does it even begin?
The problem with mounting this show has always been that tricky fifth act. For those who do not know the show, let me back up and explain why it is tricky. When Proteus declares his intent to rape Silvia, Valentine jumps in, Proteus declares his shame and guilt towards his intent. Valentine immediately forgives him and all is good with the world. But what about Silvia? She says nothing else, nor does the text imply that she is as forgiving as Valentine. And as for the girl who also witnessed the rape – Julia – what does she say about it? Also, how far does the rape go? As there is no stage direction to indicate this, each production must individually choose what they do with it. A majority of productions I have witnessed or been part of only have Proteus grab Silvia before Valentine immediately steps in to save the day. To a contemporary audience, this is more forgiving and we can all move on and have our happily ever after. However, this production did something I’ve never seen done. They took the rape further. Proteus forcefully kissed Silvia and then forced her to the ground before Silvia cried out for Sebastian’s help. It wasn’t until Proteus unbuckled his fly that Valentine jumped in. Then, to add to the severity, Valentine claimed Silvia in front of the Duke and Thurio, and dared Thurio to put his hands on her, with the threat that he would kill Thurio. Lastly, Valentine, NEVER, once, went over to his “beloved” to comfort her, to make sure she was okay, and Silvia was left in a puddle of tears and shame as everyone left for their dual weddings. The only one left onstage at the end were the two women. The two women held a final glance until Julia walked off after her man, Proteus.
All the cards were on the table. Silvia knew Julia had been disguised as a man and did nothing. Silvia was left to ask “As a woman, why didn’t you help me?” and also “Why would you want to be with him?” and Julia stood unsure of what to say or do to make this situation right – only knowing she had worked so hard for something, and wanted it desperately, and even in knowing what she had seen, she still did not want to give up on it. I was left with questions, too. Mostly, WHY do that? Why would you spend two hours playing at this comedy only to slap me in the face? I knew Proteus was a jerk, but Valentine? I hated him by the end of the show. I was deceived in him. I thought “Wow, Thurio ain’t looking so bad, is he?” Two Gentlemen of Verona? No, two douche bags of Verona.
Whether or not this choice validates or invalidates the text is a moot point for me, as I feel Shakespeare is open to interpretation. To be honest, I personally didn’t like the choice. Then I asked myself why? Why didn’t I like it? Because it was disturbing? Yes. Because it destroyed my enjoyment that I was having of the comedy presented? Yes. All of the above, I also want to admit my own personal bias when it comes to these things. My background of study is in Early Modern theatre – and everything that comes with it. While I may not like it as a contemporary woman, as an actress I find that I must make sense of those fifth acts where I become silent. My own personal bias would lead me as the actor in that role to look to at my man (or lord) for how to forgive, accept, and to let him protect me and guide me through that process. These are unfortunately, the guidelines one must follow a majority of the time when playing a Shakespearean woman. And from an Early Modern gender perspective, I really have a hard time separating myself from the acceptance that I have as an actor and academic. I understand, however, that the Spicy Witches are wishing to challenge that way of thinking, and to critique these gender structures from a modern woman’s perspective of the Silvia and Julia’s silence.
However, on that note, I don’t think that the violent rape which was presented made much sense from a character perspective. As it was occurring, yes, it did make sense that Julia, disguised as both a boy and servant, didn’t step in. He is subservient to Proteus as Sebastian and disguised as a woman, not only that, but a woman who loves him – she has a lot to lose if she does step in either way. Valentine, however, doesn’t have anything to lose. Valentine is of the same station as Proteus, and to top it off, they were best friends (and I believe by this point in the play, Valentine is well aware of Proteus’ deception) and he is watching and hearing him state his intentions to rape the woman he loves. Any man in that particular scenario would not have sat by and watched this for too long before jumping in. Another added factor that was presented here, the actor playing Valentine was physically taller and bigger than Proteus, so there was NOTHING to prevent Valentine from making a speedier entrance into the moment. You can still leave us with the same effect however, without going that far physically with the sexual assault. As Silvia has no other lines in the fifth act to indicate how she is feeling, the actress can still choose to not agree with what is happening. I know that if one of my man’s friends had stated their intentions to rape me, I would never be okay with them again. Just the threat of violence would be enough. I think the same affect and desired outcome could still have occurred without making that specific choice.
However, in juxtaposition to this, what I do find important here, is this young company (which was started by five young women) are reaching for something bigger and beyond the scope of just presenting Shakespeare in its regular platform for the umpteenth million time. These young women, through their current season, are looking to critique gender structure and power dynamics within relationships between men and women. They not only wish to present classic and contemporary works, but hope to provoke debate, and ignite a discussion. I like theatre which entertains (who doesn’t?) but I APPRECIATE theatre which strives to do something different. Appreciation in this case means more than ‘like’.
Additionally, there seems to be a desire and need for this type of choice to be made. And also, this is theatre – you need to take risks and go for the big bold choices, even if they might upset or bother people, so I appreciate their attempt to do so. There were about five women of my generation seated around me, and at the end of the play, they expressed their excitement in the choice and they felt that FINALLY, the women’s voice spoke through the men’s. In a majority of Shakespeare’s Act Five’s, once the women characters get their men, they become silent and let the men resolve the rest of the plot. However, in this case, the women’s voice was wrung loud, and echoed through the men’s. I barely listened to the rest of the act as I watched Silvia’s tears roll down her face and Julia stare in bewilderment. And at the very end, when everyone left, the silence that lasted between Julia and Silvia was deafening. Bravo, for making this bold, unique choice that obviously inspired debate beyond the evening’s performance but getting to that point wasn’t always coherent.
For all of this gender critiquing, though, I found some of the gender casting choices to be a bit bewildering. See, when you wish to do one thing, specifically in critiquing gender and gender structures, if affects how you view everything else, and throughout the show, I actually didn’t have too much of a problem figuring out who was a playing a man, who was playing a woman, etc, but the cohesion of these decisions didn’t work for me in the end. The leads were kept in their gender specific roles, whilst smaller roles along the way were all changed. The Duke, Antonio, and Pantino (all played by women) played their characters as women. Thurio (Maren Fischer), Silvia’s foppish suitor, was played by a woman, as a man, but dressed in a woman’s equestrian fashion. However, Sir Eglamour was played by a woman, but dressed in a man’s pant suit. And Launce, Proteus’ servant was played as a little girl of about 7. So, all in all, you had men playing men, women playing women, women playing men as men, women playing male characters as female characters, women playing male characters as little girls, and women playing feminine men – whew! I wasn’t sure why all the gender flops and flips. Was their a larger reason I missed or was it just who was available for casting? Were you going for non-traditional casting in the male roles?
All in all, this is fine, however, when you do this, you need to make a cohesive choice, or, if you’re going to make the switch, be VERY specific about why you’re doing it, and what it says about the overall message of your show. For example, a moment I was extremely disturbed was when Proteus angrily took Launce’s prized stuffed dog, Crab, and threw him away from Launce after admonishing her verbally. Now, you’ve just yelled at a little girl and took away her stuffed teddy bear. As an audience, we now hate you – and I knew the rape was coming up. For me, there was no going back for Proteus at this point. Also, I have to ask, WHY was Launce played as a little girl? I think it made sense from how playful Launce’s language is and the actress, (Isabella Russo) made sense of it creatively using Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, and shoes to tell us her little tales – but if Launce is a little girl, then what does that mean for her relationship to Proteus?
Director Meghan Blakeman chose to update the setting of the play to 2014 – and when you do that, you need to re-define the relationship of some characters. For example, I found that the servant to master relationship in this was a bit unclear. Like I mentioned above with Launce – was Launce a little girl who followed Proteus around adoringly, or was this his little sister, niece, or cousin – or a kid from the neighbourhood? I wasn’t sure what her function was and how that in turn would affect her relationship with Proteus. Equally as confusing, Lucetta’s maid function towards Julia was a bit unclear. In 2014, Lucetta really can’t be tightening corsets or brushing Julia’s hair – but what is she now? A nanny? A Personal Assistant? A friend from school? I just didn’t know and there was very little to indicate what her function was. Speed (Aidan Kinney) was the clearest, but in that, but still somewhat vague. He was some sort of messenger, or gofer. He wore a messenger bag, jeans, and a sweater. However, at times, he seemed on par station wise with Valentine, so I also thought they might be equals in this scenario. Again, I just don’t think the choices were specific enough in this regard.
However, what I do think was specific and clear in this production was the casts use of language. Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of the few plays which relies very little on tricks, magic, witches, and large battle scenes. You basically have the language, the actors, and their relationships with each other. It was very apparent and clear that Blakeman and the cast worked tirelessly and endlessly to be specific and clear in how they used the Shakespearean language. Special attention was given to building the ideas within the larger construct presented in the speeches and scenes. The cast also had to work doubly as hard vocally in the Solo Velez caverness theatre space, as it ate a lot of their consonants. However, the cast combated this challenge marvellously and still delivered the text with dexterity, clarity, range, and specificity.
Another thing that was done well was Blakeman’s choice in clarifying which servants belonged to which master. With all the travelling and change of locations, the text of ‘Two Gents’ is sometimes unclear about which servant is in Milan and who is in Verona, and who belongs to whom. Blakeman combated this by putting servants in scenes with their masters which they may not have been present in before, and also giving some text which belonged to one, to another which made a lot more sense for where the scene took place and who was in the scene. Blakeman and the cast solved some textual confusion by doing this and it helped us along the journey.
This is a young, vibrant, agile group of young performers who are obviously passionate about the work they are doing, and truly, are ones to be watched out for. They are presenting Two Gentlemen of Verona in rep with Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw with members of the same cast. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and the Spicy Witches should be applauded for their boldness, energy, and for making others think.
Two Gentlemen of Verona is presented in rep with Becky Shaw at Flambopyan Theatre, at 107 Suffolk Street, NYC, NY.
Two Gentlemen of Verona
December 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 @ 8pm
December 13, 14th @ 2pm
December 4, 10, 12, 13 @ 8pm
December 6, 7th @ 2pm
To learn more about the company, please go to www.spicywitchproductions.com