Shakespeare’s contemporary comedy

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Michael Toscano

One of the problems with taking the work of William Shakespeare ever so seriously, even with his comedies, is that we can forget just how youthful some of his lovers actually are.

But director PJ Paparelli has not forgotten, and he makes sure we don’t either, with his production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, now onstage at the Lansburgh Theatre of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

In Romeo and Juliet, of course, everyone knows that the lovers are teenagers, even if we usually see them played by actors in their 20s. But we tend to overlook the fact that, in Shakespeare’s time, most lovers were in their teens.

When the Bard was writing, it was a pretty short trip from adolescence to oblivion because live spans were so stunted. Centuries later, his lovers are usually seen as generically youthful, but past the angst and uncertainty of adolescence, regardless of the playwright’s intentions.

Paparelli has taken Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is thought to be one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, back to what may have been its original sensibility by giving the requisite two sets of lovers a decidedly young attitude and sensibility. The result is a delightful, energetic tale that should appeal to audiences of all ages.

Through a teen’s eyes

Here’s how the director explains his approach: “One thing I learned long ago is that teenagers always assume they hold the reins in their lives. It comes as a sudden and devastating shock when they discover they are powerless: powerless to control another person’s actions, powerless to make someone love them.”

He adds, “Shakespeare’s language expresses all the broiling emotions and driving passions in this play, so I wanted to live in that world as fully as possible. However, I couldn’t help seeing today in this play…when…teenagers are left to their own devices.”

He is aided immeasurably by a design team — Walt Spangler, sets; Paul Spadone, costumes; Howell Binkley, lights; Fabian Obispo, composer/sound — that has created a hybrid world combining Elizabethan themes with current motifs and even fantasy elements. Together with Paparelli, they meet the challenge, allowing the play to exist in its period while “releasing the energy and echoes” of today.

The two gentlemen of the play are Valentine (Andrew Veenstra) and Proteus (Nick Dillenburg), a couple of boyhood friends in Verona whose brotherly bonds are strained when both fall in love with lovely Sylvia (Natalie Mitchell), daughter of the Duke of Milan (Brent Harris).

Shakespeare puts this test of friendship vs. love under additional scrutiny and, at times, mockery, via Launce (Euan Morton) and Speed (Adam Green), servants and foils for Proteus and Valentine. Sometimes they undercut the angst the feuding male lovers express in their oratory by showcasing a less grand view of love.

Morton, in particular, adds unique perspective in scenes where he is alone on stage with Crab, his stoic canine companion. The dog, by the way, deserves his own Helen Hayes Award for comedic acting. His deadpan reactions to Speed’s love and nurture get some of the biggest laughs of the show.

Modern set and music

The Two Gentlemen of Verona opens with a blast of light and sound as we experience fragments of nighttime debauchery. When our senses settle down and the lighting relaxes, we find ourselves in what seems to be a desolate McDonald’s parking lot.

It’s 5:08 a.m., as sardonic text flashed at the top of the set informs us. Ah, youth, able to party all night, endure an early morning after, and still have Shakespeare’s sweet words fall trippingly from their tongues.

We seem to be in some post-industrial time, all exposed girders and sheet metal. The dress is Snow White meets Star Trek, with a layer of whimsy. Still, the laptop is Apple and the phones we briefly see are cellular, so we get the feeling these young people are real and as easily identifiable as our own children or grandchildren.

Paparelli and Obispo give us brief shots of contemporary music to underscore mood and emotion, including snatches of Maroon Five and Bono. OK, if you’re older, you’ll enjoy some mighty Motown.

In fact, Paparelli has mixed some Holland-Dozier-Holland lyrics with Shakespeare in an early scene of casual discourse. It works quite nicely, but who would have thought the Supremes’ “Baby Love” had such clarity?

But all this is not just a stunt to attract folks who might otherwise fear the Bard. It actually underscores a sense of irony. And aren’t teenagers just steeped in irony, especially these days, that is a sharp counterpoint to sappy love?

The lovers sing several songs, as is customary for Shakespeare comedies. But their all-too-obvious vocal limitations thankfully confine them to safe, softer ballads.

Singing flaws aside, the cast is energetic and all turn in strong performances. Veenstra and Dillenburg seem rather interchangeable as the gentlemen of the title, but it matters little. More successful are Green and Morton, offering more nuanced and comically layered work as the servants.

Miriam Silverman finds some grit along with the comedy as lovelorn Julia, who becomes part of the main love story. That role may be the first appearance of a Shakespearean female who finds herself disguised as a man and wandering a forest.

Natalie Mitchell is appropriately lovely and gentle as the adored Sylvia, even while swigging beer, er, ale, from a bottle.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of the least performed of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s often derided as weak. True, the poetry we associate with Shakespeare is not as vivid here as it will later become.

But we can certainly see the early formulation of many of his touchstones here, with cross-dressing disguise, two sets of lovers whose stories collide, jealousy and friendship under stress, and the emergence of strong female characters and underscoring from servants. Paparelli gives us a story with clarity and sensitivity that highlight the Bard’s budding genius.

You will enjoy meeting not only this pair of gentlemen, but also the other people and, yes, a dog who inhabit their world.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona continues through March 4 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, located at 450 7th St., N.W. in Washington.

Show times are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Tickets range from $39 to $90, with a 10 percent discount for those 60 and over, except Friday and Saturday evenings. Call the box office at (202) 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org for tickets and information.

The Lansburgh Theatre is accessible to persons with disabilities, offering wheelchair-accessible seating and restrooms, audio enhancement, and Braille and large print programs.

An audio-described performance is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m., and a sign-interpreted performance will be held Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m. TTY: (202) 638-3863.

Michael Toscano is the Beacon’s theater critic.