Confronted with his own treachery, a knife in his hands, his best friend before him, The Two Gentlemen of Verona’s Proteus laments, “My shame and guilt confounds me.” And confounded we, as an audience, are, too. How can he expect to be forgiven for his betrayal of his beloved Valentine? How can he expect to find happiness after renouncing his love for the faithful Julia? And how in the world can we be in the fifth act of a Shakespearean comedy? And yet, with the skills of American Shakespeare Center’s Gregory Jon Phelps, this moment somehow makes sense, and, moreover, allows the play to forge a path to its ultimate happy ending. But I’m starting at the end when I should start at the (equally confounding) beginning.
If Shakespeare were a visual artist, one imagines that The Two Gentlemen of Verona, often believed to be his earliest comedy, would be the lightly shaded pencil sketch an artist might draw as the rough draft for his eventual masterpiece. It’s as if the Bard was outlining several possible characters and dilemmas but not yet coloring them in, instead choosing to wait and see which ones might work best for future development. As a result, we merely see the black and white shapes of the girl-in-disguise-as-a-boy, the swapping of promise rings, the errant children disobeying their parents, or the betrayal of a best friend. And yet, in spite of how little depth Shakespeare gives the vast majority of his characters in this script, several of the actors at the American Shakespeare Center still manage to find the paintbrush that allows them to add color and definition to Shakespeare’s unusually flat personalities.
As an audience member at one of Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s not uncommon to find oneself keeping track of at least two plots at once; however, the tangled web Shakespeare weaves in this particular play warrants a brief overview before I continue further in a discussion of this production. The play opens with best friends parting ways as the adventurous Valentine sets sail for Milan while the lovestruck Proteus remains at home in Verona. However, not long after, Proteus’ father—learning of his son’s love for the young Julia—sends Proteus off to Milan to join Valentine. Once they are reunited there, we learn that Valentine has fallen madly in love with Silvia, the Duke’s daughter. All seems well, right? Perhaps we could just send everyone back to Verona and finish with a couple of quick weddings at the end of act 2? But remember, Shakespeare is sketching out numerous possibilities, and so we must encounter several obstacles: the Duke’s desire for his daughter to marry the rich Sir Thurio, Silvia’s capacity to make all those who see her fall in love—Proteus included–and Julia’s plot to disguise herself in order to spy on her lover while in Milan. And we haven’t even mentioned the merry band of robbers, the antics of the servants, or the presence of the loveable dog, Crab. Confounded yet?
When in doubt at a Shakespeare play, listen closely to the language. Never is this rule more true than at the Blackfriars Playhouse, watching a company of actors for whom the text forms the foundation of every choice they make. Don’t get caught up in what just happened—stay in the moment of what’s happening now—and you will find that you’re in for a raucous ride. Take, for example, the opening scene of this particular production. Once past the initial exposition, you’re prepared for your first auditory test as Allison Glenzer’s Speed and Gregory Jon Phelps’s Proteus rattle off an escalating series of proofs regarding Speed’s relative status as a shepherd to Valentine’s sheep—or perhaps it’s a sheep to Valentine’s shepherd? There’s no mercy in the impeccable timing of Glenzer and Phelps; they require you to stay on track with their logic and demand your well-deserved applause at each of their rhetorical triumphs—but you’re hard-pressed to find a winner in the war of words, for both are equally convincing, equally engaging, and equally amusing. In their dexterous mouths, words that would take me several minutes to puzzle through on the page make immediate sense, and I find myself joining in the laughter even as I think, “Do I understand what they just said?” And yet, to return to the previous moment would be to defy the first rule of seeing Shakespeare, and so I just continue on the ride.
And a ride it is, both because of the swiftly moving twists and turns of the action and also because of the clowning of characters like Launce, Proteus’s servant, who appears to have little necessity within the actual plot, yet to whom Shakespeare offers some of his most unique comic monologues. With the skill of an actor like Ben Curns, a man who breathes color and life into Shakespeare’s rough outline, it’s little surprise that the monologues are memorable; however, with a sidekick like Augusta Dog Adoptions’ Jed, it’s quite a shock that even Curns isn’t upstaged.
Yes, The Two Gentlemen of Verona potentially calls for a live dog. Yes, ASC is tugging at your heart by casting different, very adoptable, very “awww”-worthy pups throughout the production run. Yes, Jed—a rotund black Labrador—seems to know exactly how to best upstage Curns. And yet, as ASC’s actors so often do, Curns finds a way to make the unexpected unexpectedly delightful. Given Launce, a character who only appears in a handful of scenes with few memorable qualities other than his love for his dog (no matter how much he denies it), Curns finds ways to add detail and shading to the clown—even as he endures the crowd’s clear adoration of his sidekick. But the marvel here is not Jed; it is Curns—an actor who knows how to put the spotlight on his scene partner, and, in so doing, allows it to reflect best on himself.
And so Shakespeare perhaps puts his best writing in this play in the mouths of the clowns, leaving the main characters with little material with which to work. While Tracie Thomason’s sweet portrayal of the heartbroken Julia brings much laughter in the infamous letter monologue and Grant Davis’s lovestruck Valentine finds the humor in the corded ladder scene, it’s difficult for Abbi Hawk’s Silvia to find depth or dimension within a role that is muted for the final hundred lines of the play. In fact, of the four lovers, it is only Phelps’s Proteus who leaves an indelible impact as he begs forgiveness for his villainous and calloused willingness to abjure both his best friend and his love for the possibility of greener grass in the form of Silvia. And, since that is where we began, it’s also where we shall end.
There are many things that ASC does well, but one of the best is their ability to find the tragedy in the comedy and the comedy in the tragedy. And so, in that final scene, as Proteus finds himself, weapon in hand, facing both the reality of his treachery and the anguish of his choices, I am momentarily reminded of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. For just a moment, as Phelps looks at his hands as if he can already see the blood staining them, I see a flash of the Scottish king, the villainous version of Proteus who doesn’t get to acknowledge his betrayal until he has already committed the murder of Duncan and there’s no turning back. And so, as Proteus falls to his knees before Valentine, begging “if hearty sorrow / Be a sufficient ransom for offence, / I tender ‘t here,” I find myself forgiving Proteus’s shortcomings, and perhaps even beginning to forgive Shakespeare for the deficiencies in his earliest comedy. If pencil sketches like Launce and Proteus are what are necessary for Shakespeare to later create some of my favorite characters in literature, then so be it, especially if actors like those at the American Shakespeare Center are there to color in the outlines.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona continues at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, through November 23. (And, at the time of writing this article, the loveable Jed was still available for adoption through Augusta Dog Adoptions: http://www.augustadogadoptions.org)