For Fresno State’s ‘Gentlemen of Verona,’ a rousing update
Let’s do something different and focus on the ending of Fresno State’s accomplished production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Usually critics avoid writing about the end of a play because they don’t want to give anything away. But I think I can do it without diminishing the audience’s appreciation for this well-acted and conceived comedy.
I’ve long been a fan of well-crafted endings and feel they’re far more important than some directors give them credit for. I’m not talking necessarily about a show’s climax — that moment of highest tension when a narrative starts sparking into resolution — which is very important, of course. I’m thinking more about the final seconds of a production, when all the elements of stagecraft come together: the lighting and sound cues, the positioning of the actors, the directorial choices that coalesce to give the audience that crucial ending impression. Give us confidence and precision, and it can make a powerful impact. Give us sloppy and bland — a light cue a second out of sync, an awkwardly delivered final line, a less-than-punchy closing visual tableaux — and it can cut a production off at the knees.
Which brings me to Brad Myers and his “Verona,” a charming and deftly directed show.
On one hand, Myers as director has some baggage to deal with. One of Shakespeare’s earliest works, the play has a truly awful ending that includes one of the title characters, Proteus, threatening to rape Silvia, the girlfriend of his best friend, Valentine. After Valentine forgives his friend, he seems to “offer” Silvia to Proteus, though that offer is graciously declined after Proteus realizes he’s still in love with Julia, who just happened to have witnessed the threatened rape. (And then, after this little “misunderstanding,” the two reunited couples skate off to what we assume is wedded bliss.) Certainly, things were different back in Shakespeare’s time, but the weird juxtaposition of sexual aggression and treatment of women as mere items to be bartered would not sit well with contemporary audiences.
I won’t go into Myers’ solution, but I can say the end result, with just a bit of tweaking — and a lot left unsaid — is suspenseful, gracious, thrilling and powerful, both in terms of the subtle surgery to a musty narrative and also the stagecraft involved. It’s superb.
The rest of the show leading up to that point is very good, too.
Myers has fun setting the production at the end of the 1950s, just on the cusp of the wildness of the ‘60s. The provincial town of Verona, where Proteus (Steven Weatherbee) and Valentine (Kai DiMino) live, represents more an old-fashioned mindset, while Milan — where both end up moving to — is the quintessential bright-lights, big-city experience. Valentine’s fussy, high-waisted pants in his first scene capture this contrast. (Kelly Curry designed the vibrant costumes, and Rachel Martinez did the hair and makeup). When he gets to Milan, his wardrobe gets an upgrade to sleek, tailored jackets. That’s where he meets the object of his affection, the wealthy and stylish Silvia (Lauren Folland), who’d much rather hang out with him than the doltish dandy Turio (Aaron Gomes), the choice of her father, the Duke (Henry Montelongo).
Unlike some Shakespeare adaptations in which an updated time period or setting just seems superfluous, Myers’ conceit has a major impact on the production. I love how Silvia’s “posse” surrounding her is fashion crazy and ultra-pretentious. (A quartet of her friends includes two androgynous “BFFs,” according to the program, and the four go around striking amusing and haughty poses.) The first gown we see Silvia in feels like ravishing haute couture. All this better establishes the dynamic between the “two gentlemen” of the title and their provincial background as they attempt to assimilate into a faster paced lifestyle.
The four leading actors all excel in terms of their understanding of the text, with DiMino and Weatherbee offering amiable and textured interpretations. And both Folland and Alyssa Benitez, who plays the maligned Julia (who spends a stint on stage in a cross-dressing capacity) give the best performances I’ve seen from them at Fresno State. Both women exude grace, tenacity and a wily contemporary vibe.
Other standouts include Gomes as a foppish Turio and Kindle Lynn Cowger as a coy Lucetta. Jacob Gonzales, as Speed (Valentine’s servant), is a comic highlight. Ted Nunes, on guitar, offers a wonderful addition of live music.
Jeff Hunter’s scenic design, which visually incorporates the play’s dominant themes of rings and writing letters into a solidly built staircase and balcony, is substantial and handsome, but it’s one of the few points of the production that feels static. With few set dressings or furniture to differentiate the play’s varied locales, the stark feel doesn’t complement Myers’ perky late-1950s conceit and in fact seems to fight against it. Fresno State’s theater department needs to start thinking more about making scenic design relevant and interesting in a fast paced and kinetically charged media world in which audiences are used to much more visual stimulation than a few decades ago. (Other local university and college theater departments are doing imaginative things in terms of scenic design, as are some local community theaters. And at the professional level throughout the country, technology and creativity are combining in stunning ways.) Sometimes minimalism works. Other times it doesn’t.
But enough grumpiness. Overall, this production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is stellar collegiate Shakespeare. It feels fresh, inspired and true to the text without getting bogged down in archaic notions. I started this review writing about the conclusion of the show, and I’ll wrap things up in the same way: All’s well that ends well.
“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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