The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Best friends, Valentine (Mat Hostetler) and Proteus (Matt Mueller), become enemies when Proteus falls in love with Valentine's pledged, Silvia (Alexandra C. Lewis), forswearing his own promises to Julia (Jamie Ann Romero). It's a variation on familiar themes in the canon: friends and lovers are split apart by jealousies, suspicions, and the vagaries of the heart.
Generally speaking, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is not one of the Bard's most popular plays, but at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival it is one of only six plays produced twice since 2001. The current production, as the previous one, is an adaptation, moved forward from 16th-Century Verona and Milan to today. The premise is that we are watching a live rehearsal of the play.
|(L to R) Benaiah Anderson|
as Sir Thurio
and Matt Mueller as Proteus
Photo: Kira Horvath
Backstage drama is a common theatrical conceit—Noises Off, The Dresser, Kiss Me Kate, and Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway quickly come to mind—so we must ask, why is it employed here? Does it add to our understanding of the action or context of the play?
In addition to altering the setting, director Tom Markus has added scenes and dialogue of his own making for an additional sub-plot that involves a rehearsal which features conflicts between a director and his actors over characterizations and the meaning of the play.
In this crude annexation, it turns out that the director gets it wrong, and the actors, who take the plot at face value, win out; so, the added subplot not only does nothing to elucidate the meaning of the play; in fact, it further obfuscates it, since face value provides only a partial explanation for why the play was written, never touching the subtext that should illuminate it.
Additionally, we are told in the pre-talk that there is no record of the play having been performed until 1762, while the director's notes say it premiered in 1594. Mostly likely, both these dates are incorrect. On Shrove Tuesday, February 19, 1577, the choir boys from St. Paul's Cathedral, under the direction of Sebastian Westcote,1 performed The History of Titus and Gissipus, one of two principle source texts for The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
This timeline is problematic for the academic and festival industries that have hitched their identities and fortunes to the glovemaker's son, from whom we have only six wildly variant signatures, a will that mentions no books or manuscripts, and a sophomoric poem that Ben Jonson mockingly identifies (in the German epitaph at The Holy Trinity Church, wherein the bust and tomb of the "upstart crow" are significant tourist attractions) as "all he ever wrote." The Stratford stand-in would have been only 13-years old at the time this play was first performed.
Then there is the 26-year old Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who at this time, as adult courtiers do, gave up signing his given name to his poems and plays, affixing the most famous of his three pseudonyms, "William Shake-speare," to the masks he wrote for the court. Throughout his life, de Vere continued to work on these masterpieces. After his death, "the true and original manuscripts" were published by the youngest of his three daughters, Susan de Vere Herbert (Hello, Cordelia!), and her husband, the Earl of Montgomery. We know this version as The First Folio.
|(L to R) Jamie Anne Romero as Julia|
and Karyn Casl as Lucetta
Photo: Kira Horvath
Fresh from his European sojourn—financed by the sale of much of his ancestral lands (the basis for King Lear)—including an extended stay in Italy (thus the many local details in the plays from this locale), de Vere borrowed a well-known plot from commedia dell'arte to explore the two sides of his ego, his relationship with his wife (Anne Cecil, daughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley [de Vere's guardian], Treasurer of England, and Queen Elizabeth's chief minister for nearly 50 years) and his love affair with writing.
Unfortunately, the continuity of this intriguing early work is regularly disrupted by Markus' superfluous subplot, which undermines character development and truncates the dramatic flow. One wonders whether budgetary considerations prompted a production concept based on unfinished sets and scraps of street clothes and costume remnants. There doesn't seem to be another reason for such an approach, other than the one Markus offers in the program: that his audiences often have requested to see a rehearsal.
Occasionally, when the original script is allowed to breath and the actors are permitted to sink their teeth into the material, we are delighted by the proceedings. Mueller's Proteus is romantic, thoughtful, brooding, ruthless, and, ultimately, repentant; Hostetler's Valentine is idealistic, trusting, outraged, and forgiving; Lewis' Silvia is bright, witty, insightful, and indomitable; and Romero's Julia,2 is open-hearted, loyal, despondent, and, in the end, compassionate.
|(L to R) an Andersen as Bastardo|
and Mat Hostetler as Valentine
Photo: Kira Horvath
Now that we've seen the rehearsal, please let us know when the run begins. It would be a pleasure to see an uninterrupted version that emphasizes the young playwright's struggle with love of self and others. The director's quandary in Markus' subplot does not measure up to and warrant insertion into the original script.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Two Gentlemen of Verona runs in repertory with Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and To Kill A Mockingbird through August 9th on the University of Colorado–Boulder campus. 303-492-0554 or at www.coloradoshakes.org.
1Note that Sebastian is the name Julia takes when she disguises herself as a man.
2It's interesting to note, from an Oxfordian perspective, that Romero, in this play and in Hamlet, plays two different aspects of de Vere's first wife (and Burghley's daughter), Anne Cecil: Julia and Ophelia. It would have been interesting to have seen her play Hero in this year's Much Ado About Nothing as well; that would have been quite a trifecta!
During de Vere's tour of Europe, he was lead to believe that the first child of his union with Anne was not his own. His jealousy, anger, and, eventually, his repentance is explored throughout the canon—most noticeably in Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, but to a lesser degree in many other plays, including this one.
Whenever you see this play, watch for the moment in the final scene when Julia reveals herself to Proteus and listen closely to what they say. You will find similar sentiments expressed during the denouement of all the aforementioned and referenced plays. Whatever his youthful transgressions, de Vere (like Hal in Henry V) grew into an inspirational man who continued to refine his most heartfelt sentiments throughout his lifetime, which is why The First Folio should be the first reference for the playwright's final statement. In the case of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The First Folio contains the only surviving copy of the script, and thus represents a mature take on youthful folly.