Review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona
While this early play is often given short shrift by casual observers of the canon, it is a surprisingly sophisticated elixir of bitter moral choices, on friendship and love, sweetened with an array of comedic shtick—a tonic on par with the playwright’s later, more familiar efforts, as we see in this well-conceived and finely tuned production.
The friendship between Proteus (Sean Scrutchins) and Valentine (Walter Kmiec) knows no bounds, even as they quibble over their divergent futures—as Proteus stays home to court Julia (Shunté Loften) and Valentine seeks adventure and honor in Milan. Yet, after he is betrothed, Proteus also sets off to Milan to join Valentine at the insistence of his mother, Antonia (Matara Hitchcock), who is convinced by her servant, Panthino (Logan Ernstthal), that the youth needs seasoning and testing via travel.
In Milan, mid-20th Century, Proteus learns that Valentine has fallen in love with and is secretly betrothed to Silvia (Anastasia Davidson) the fair daughter of the Duke (Kevin Rich). Upon meeting her, Proteus falls in love with her as well, and begins to scheme how he can replace Valentine in Silvia’s heart; meanwhile, the Duke wants Silvia to marry Thurio (Christian Ray Robinson), based on position and wealth, while back in Verona, Julia decides to disguise herself as a man and venture to Milan to be near Proteus.
Infatuated, Proteus outlines his moral dilemma—forgetting about his pledge to Julia and his friendship with Valentine, to court Silvia—in a remarkably ruthless speech that serves as an early prototype of what the playwright later tenders in the tragic antagonists, Richard III and Iago. The monologue, delivered sublimely by Scrutchins, is serious in intent, yet for the cause of love (not power), as befitting the comedic form.
Despite Valentine’s commendation of his friend Proteus to Silvia—a heartfelt appeal by Kmiec—she, right from the get-go, sees through Proteus’ attempts to ingratiate himself to her. Davidson deftly navigates the complex arc of Silvia’s character—the sophisticated rhetorical play (insightful jabs, biting sarcasm), the moral high ground, and her passion for Valentine.
Director Carolyn Howarth concludes the play with a master stroke, leaving Proteus to face Julia, as the lights fade. Loften is remarkable in her depiction of Julia’s transformation, nobly embracing the character’s pain inflicted by her discovery of Proteus’ selfish breach of their betrothal.
In addition to Julia’s comedic dalliances and verbal jousts with her lady-in-waiting, Lucetta, the freewheeling and tart, Chloe McLeod, the playwright offers a surfeit of comic relief who, as we’ve come to expect from Shake-speare’s fools, serve up a barrage of zingers, mocking the follies of their “superiors,” including Valentine’s Speed (a scene-stealing Jacob Dresch) translating Silvia’s rejection of Valentine’s letters for his master, who believes he has penned these love notes for her, not for himself, paralleling an earlier conversation between Julia and Lucetta regarding a letter from Proteus.
We are also treated to the rare appearance of a dog, Crab, belonging to Launce (Gary Alan Wright), servant to Proteus, who gleefully and effusively introduces his canine companion with an hilarious list of anthropomorphic attributes, endearing us to his furry friend with these affectionate sentiments that he later, shamelessly, leverages to elicit pleas from the audience on the four-legged player’s behalf.
As with roughly half the canon, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is set in Italy, where Edward de Vere spent most his his time during his fourteen-month tour of the continent during his 25th and 26th years, before he began his playwrighting in earnest. Late in his 26th year, on Shrove Tuesday, February 19, 1577, the choir boys from St. Paul’s Cathedral, under the direction of Sebastian Westcote, performed The History of Titus and Gissipus, one of two principle source texts for The Two Gentlemen of Verona. As with many of the plays that were first performed at court, The Two Gentlemen of Verona was retitled and edited before it was performed on the public stage, in this case 17 years later (1594).
Some elements of the plot in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (as well as in The Comedy of Errors and most prominently in Twelfth Night) are derived from de Vere’s experience in Siena, in January of 1576, taking in Alessandro Piccolomini’s The Deceived (Gli ingannati), a masterwork of commedia dell’arte. Piccolomini was widely hailed as “the prince of comedic writers” in his native land. As always, though, de Vere’s familial issues—particularly his relationship with the Cecil family (William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief advisor and executive officer, who became de Vere’s guardian when the boy’s father, John de Vere, the 16th Earl of Oxford, died, and later became de Vere’s father-in-law after Edward’s marriage to his daughter Anne)—in this case, Proteus’ mistreatment of Julia (as a stand-in for Anne) and Valentine’s marriage into a powerful family, initially at the objection of Silvia’s father, the Duke (as a metaphor for Cecil’s initial preference of Sir Philip Sydney over de Vere for Anne).
But, as Mark Anderson notes in his seminal work, “Shakespeare” by Another Name, the central affair of the plot is not between man and woman, but author and pen, as noted in this exchange between Valentine and Silvia:
Silvia: …But since unwillingly, take them again.
Nay, take them.
Valentine: Madam, they are for you.
Silvia: Ay, ay: you writ them, sir, at my request;
But I will none of them; they are for you;
I would have had them writ more movingly.
Valentine: Please you, I’ll write your ladyship another.
Silvia: And when it’s writ, for my sake read it over,
And if it please you, so; if not, why, so. 520
Valentine: If it please me, madam, what then?
Silvia: Why, if it please you, take it for your labour …
Speed: O excellent device! was there ever heard a better,
That my master, being scribe, to himself should write the letter?
Indeed, as we watch letters written by Valentine and Proteus being , ripped up, and reconstructed, we are reminded that most of the plays performed at court in the late 1570s and 1580s were rewritten for the public stage and edited further before appearing in the first folio, “… according to the true and original copies” in possession of de Vere’s third daughter, Susan, and published by her husband and his brother, the Earls of Darby and Pembroke.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s presentation of Two Gentlemen of Verona, by “William Shake-speare” runs through August 7th in repetory with All’s Well That Ends Well and Coriolanus. For tickets: https://cupresents.org/performances.