Brad Myers is a master director of Shakespeare, so it’s always a must-see event when he tackles a play by the Bard. The latest outing for the Fresno State director is the comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which opens Friday, Dec. 1, at the university’s John Wright Theatre. Myers took time out of his busy tech week for the show to engage in a dialogue about the production.
Q: In “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” two best friends are parted when one leaves his hometown for the big city of Milan. Am I the only one who immediately thinks of high school kids wanting to get out of Fresno for San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York?
A: Yes, Proteus and Valentine are facing the same decisions that high school grads are facing today. One of the gents chooses to leave his hometown and head off for the big city; the other wants to stay at home because he is head-over-heels in love with his girlfriend. This is one of the many elements of the “Two Gents” storyline that makes this play very accessible for high school and university students.
Q: Tell us a little about Valentine (played by Kai DiMino) and Proteus (Steven Weatherbee), the two friends. How are they alike, and how are they different?
A: At the start of the play, Proteus is the hopeless romantic while Valentine is the adventurer who mocks Proteus’ foolish infatuation. However, it is not long before Valentine, too, is swept off his feet by a glamorous young woman in Milan. Valentine has a naive and trusting goodness in his faithfulness to both his friend and his love. Once Proteus is forced to leave his hometown by his parents, he becomes morally and romantically conflicted as his fidelity to both his girlfriend and best friend are challenged by a new obsession.
Q: As a scholar of Shakespeare, when you’re thinking of doing a non-traditional production, I know you give a lot of thought to changing the setting and time period of a play. What drew you to 1950s America for this production of “Two Gentlemen”?
A: The production is set on the cusp of 1959 and 1960. I consider the 1950s to be the last innocent decade in American history; before the sexual revolution, the anti-war protests, the drug culture, etc. Verona feels like a 1950s American small town — a time and place where the options in life are fewer, and the moral code is more rigidly defined. I drew inspiration from the 1950s sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.”
Big city Milan is a more glamorous and exotic location, which is richer in contrasting cultures and attitudes. (At times there is a beatnik vibe, a hint of loosened sexual mores, etc.). Proteus’ core values and sense of self are challenged when he encounters the freedom and lures beyond small town Verona.
Q: I remember a stellar production you did of “A Comedy of Errors” for Woodward Shakespeare several years ago. Wasn’t that also set in the 1950s? Do your concepts for the two productions share any similarities?
A: I’m hoping there’s been enough time between the WSF production and this show so you won’t think I’m in a conceptual rut. But, I’ll confess. I love the 1950s! The dress is fun and flattering. The innocence. The Culture. All of which serve both plays. But, in “Comedy of Errors,” the entire play is set in one town. In “Two Gents,” the 1950s small-town sensibilities are contrasted with more progressive cultural changes of the early sixties which typically began in large cities.
Q: The two “gentlemen” of the title might be the leading actors, but it’s the roles of Launce (Proteus’ servant) and Crab (Launce’s dog) that are the real audience pleasers, right? Tell us about these characters in this production.
A: Launce and Crab are always highly anticipated characters in any production of “Two Gents,” and this production will not disappoint. Crab is played by a creaky and quirky ragamuffin mutt named Steve McQueen. Rodolfo Robles-Cruz, as Launce, has the joy and challenge of performing with an adorable yet unpredictable pooch.
Q: Shakespeare liked to dress up his heroines as boys, and in this early play, this is the first time he used that conceit. Tell us how that fits into the storyline of “Two Gentlemen.” Contemporary attitudes toward gender fluidity are changing quickly these days. As a director, do you find yourself approaching Shakespeare’s gender bending differently now compared to a few decades ago?
A: Julia, Proteus’ hometown crush, disguises herself as a boy in order to travel to Milan in pursuit of Proteus, hoping to avoid “the loose encounters of lascivious men.” To be honest, we approached this plot device in the context of the story and time period, and did not tweak the cross-dressing because of evolving attitudes toward gender fluidity. However, the gender bending may resonate in more specific ways with some audience members due to changing perceptions toward rigid gender identity.
Q: Tell us a little about the show’s look. What aesthetic are you and your designers going for?
A: Kelly Curry’s costume design is an imaginative exploration of sixteenth century Shakespearean characters filtered through the 1950s. In initial discussions with Jeff Hunter, the scenic designer, we decided to go in a different direction than 1950s architecture or a replica of the traditional Elizabethan stage. Instead, I suggested that the set be informed by two of the play’s crucial plot devices, the writing of letters and the exchange of rings. Jeff took those prompts and created an intriguing design that is both beautiful and functional. Erik Montierth’s lighting design also includes both subtle and overt letter and ring influences. Also, this “Two Gents” includes guitarist Ted Nunes, who performs original 1950s underscoring throughout the production.
Q: What do you think is the hardest role to play in “Two Gentlemen”?
A: There are many challenging roles in “Two Gents.” However, Proteus has the greatest swings and journey in Shakespeare’s play. He becomes obsessed with his best friend’s girlfriend, and is torn between staying true to his friend and girlfriend, and being true to himself and his own desires. Proteus engages in some despicable behavior, but the actor must also bring charisma and vulnerability to the characterization. In this production, the character of Julia (played by Alyssa Benitez) is equally significant in the overall arc of the story. She evolves from a naive schoolgirl to an enlightened woman.
Q: Point us to one detail in the show — in the acting, direction or design — that we might miss on a first viewing.
A: One of the reasons “Two Gents” is not produced very often is because of the script’s highly controversial ending. If an audience member is not familiar with the script, he/she may not realize that we have changed one word in the final scene, allowing for a newly imagined climax to the play. With this bit of a tease, even those familiar with the play can still be asking the question, “How is this all going to end?”
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: In our production, the script has been edited, so the running time is about two hours (including intermission). The familiar theme of friendship vs. passion, the updating of the story, and the streamlined version of the text, all combine to make this a highly accessible production for young audience members who are new to Shakespeare in performance.
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” opens Friday, Dec. 1, John Wright Theatre, Fresno State. Runs through Dec. 9. Tickets are $17 general, $15 seniors, $10 students.
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