Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Normal's Overrated

Last weekend, we saw a decent but disappointing production of Two Gentlemen of Verona at PCPA. It was set in the 1920s, and the advertising for the play mentioned that this was, of course, the fascist era in Italy (Mussolini came to power in a coup d'├ętat in 1922, quite a bit earlier than I think most Americans realize), and this historical background would play a role in the production:
DeLaurier and his team have chosen to set this production in 1920s Italy. With the romantic style of the “Cole Porter era” to draw on, as well as the European Jazz age in Italy that embodied the smooth cool debonair swash of polished youthful masculinity that had survived the devastation of WWI and contrasts starkly with the rise of Mussolini’s Fascist movement, the production team plans to capture the romantic quality of great music, art and lifestyle played out against the backdrop of changing world politics.
I'm not sure how you contrast fascism and "polished youthful masculinity" since fascism makes a fetish of youthful masculinity, but I still thought that mix -- Jazz Age and fascism, light and dark -- had some potential to be very interesting. Two Gentlemen of Verona is far from Shakespeare's best work. It's whipped cream on stale cake, with a little mold at the edges. The whipped cream: Proteus loves Julia, and Julia loves Proteus. They are separated, but get back together at the end. Valentine loves Sylvia, and Sylvia loves Valentine, but her father, the Duke of Milan, has betrothed her to another man, Thurio, who is rich, but thoroughly obnoxious. In the end, Thurio gives up and Sylvia gets to marry Valentine.

Essentially, it's a screwball comedy (and a b-movie version of one, at that), so setting it in the '20s or '30s suits it well. Light and frothy. Whipped cream.

But there's way too much sugar in that cream, and that's not even the worst bit, not the mold on the stale cake underneath, which is that two of the major characters are practically unplayable. Julia is so giddy and moon-eyed that she'd seem simple-minded if played by a preteen, but when played by an adult, the character seems completely untethered. At times, she's embarrassing to watch, like a less intelligent Michele Bachmann (and, honestly, a less intelligent Michele Bachmann is quite a feat.)

Proteus is worse. The majority of the play deals with the fact that he falls in love with his best friend Valentine's girlfriend, forgets all about Julia, and plots to get Valentine thrown out of town (or possibly killed), so he can steal Julia. And in the end, for no apparent reason, Valentine and Julia both forgive him, and all's well (so to speak).

So, one of the "gentlemen" is a jerk, and the woman he's going to marry is a twit.

Best of luck, guys. I guess.

You can't have a happy ending about two young people getting together if you can't make the audience care about those people, and I'm not sure it's possible to care about the union of a cad and an idiot. Maybe Hugh Laurie can evoke compassion (even twisted love) for a despicable human being, but he's one hell of an actor, and House also has the advantage of being surrounded by other, more sympathetic characters, whose concern for him, and acceptance of him as a brilliant and charismatic mess, the audience can identify with. Unfortunately, Valentine and Sylvia are no Wilson and Cuddy, and they can't redeem a turd of a character like Proteus.

Yes, I am saying that a good television show trumps third-rate Shakespeare. I'm a snob, but I'm not an idiot.

That's why PCPA's setting intrigued me. Take a piece of froth like Two Gentlemen of Verona, and set it in a fascist milieu? That could be mismatch on a grand scale, but I usually find art works that reach for something difficult and fail more interesting than works that avoid risks. Could the dark element distract from, or comment on, the flimsiness of the play, maybe twist it in such a way that you didn't notice the implausibility of the plot and the unlikeability of the characters? And how would they use the revised setting? The Duke and Thurio would surely be fascists. Would the outlaws be partigiani?

I hadn't read Two Gentlemen since college, and barely (and not fondly) remembered it at all, but I really wanted to see what they would do with the new staging.

The answer? Not a thing. If there was anything in the production that hinted that there was a world in Milan in the 1920s that existed outside of telefono bianco films, I missed it. That left me with a perfectly adequate, traditional, normal production of Two Gentlemen of Verona.


1 comment:

Domenico Maceri said...

Two Gentlemen of Verona set in Italy sounds plausible in terms of geography. In terms of time, of course, it does not work.