Monday, February 23, 2009

Two Gentlemen of Verona - Performance Log (January 2009)

Two Gentlemen of Verona
Directed by Joe Dowling
Guthrie Theater
Minneapolis, MN
Jan. 25, 2009

When we discussed Two Gentlemen of Verona two years ago, I was intrigued by its unsatisfactory ending. Going to Joe Dowling's production of Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Guthrie I looked forward to seeing what he would do to make it seem less awkward. Dowling's approach to Act 5 in Merchant of Venice two years ago was one of the most satisfactory I've ever seen, although I complained at the time that its genius was not matched by an equally gratifying Act 4. Last year, Dowling's A Midsummer Night's Dream concluded with a wow-ing Pyramus and Thisbe. And whereas the Merchant succeeded with deft line readings and staging choices, the Midsummer excelled on the sheer chutzpah of some comic acting. Either way, it's clear Dowling cares about leaving an audience feeling like they've gotten their money's worth, believes the audience will make that judgment based on how entertained they feel they've been, and has been pretty successful enhancing Shakespearean comedies to that end. So, what to do with Two Gentlemen and its abrupt Act 5 conversions?

1. The medium is the message!

Not so fast. First, we'll want to examine the framing device Dowling provides for the play. This Two Gentlemen of Verona takes place as a 1950s live TV broadcast. And the Guthrie audience is the TV studio audience. Before the play and during intermission, we hear 1950s ad jingles for Kent cigarettes, Rice Krispies, Muriel cigars, and Maypo and theme songs from such late '50s shows as "Maverick," "I Love Lucy," "Robin Hood," "The Honeymooners," "Have Gun, Will Travel," "FBI," and "Mighty Mouse." We see big boxy cameras. We see tech people milling around. We see the perspective scale marked out on the gray studio floor so the cameramen can have a guide for pulling focus. We see two large television screens on either side of the stage showing the flat video-like gray images of the play being performed in front of us.

The characters in the play are also placed in the 1950s. Proteus (Jonas Goslow) and Valentine (Sam Bardwell), in jackets and narrow ties, are graduating from high school. Julia (Sun Mee Chomet) is having slumber parties. Silvia's dad is a businessman in Milan. The outlaws look like a biker gang escaped from a Gidget movie. And in the transitions from scene to scene Dowling inserts live musical performances, either actual or reminiscent of early rock and roll standards. Shakespeare might have been surprised to look down the cast list and see a character called "The Singer" (played by Sasha Andreev). He would have been even more surprised when he found that the singer sounded at times like Frank Sinatra and at others like Elvis Presley instead of Thomas Morley.

A modernized production always begs the reciprocal question of commentary, Shakespeare on setting and setting on Shakespeare. These are not the real 1950s that Dowling gives us, but the glossy magazine version of low-brow culture. That's interesting. Shakespeare is considered pretty high class now, and people pay a pretty penny to watch his stuff at the Guthrie, but synching this play up with the pop culture of rock and television and advertising, the dominant imagery of Dowling's vision, suggests that Shakespeare's play is equivalent pap. These particular cultural elements tend to exaggerate and or even caricature emotions, emphasizing and evoking desires, fears, passions, but they do so in a way that distorts beyond the expectations of comic commentary.

Take a song like Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh's "Tell Laura I Love Her" (the genre of which is adapted into a theme for Julia by The Singer), a teen tragedy piece so over the top its hard not to laugh at it now: "No one knows what happened that day, / Or how his car overturned in flames." Listening to this sort of song, one doesn't focus on the ugliness of the accident or the senselessness of it or the stupidity involved. Instead the song encourages us to crave the situation in which Tommy's dying words, "tell Laura I love her," can have their greatest significance. To have something like this as Julia's theme suggests shallowness, the melodramatic yearnings of a young girl in love with love made immortal by gruesome catastrophe. Yet, ironically, it is Julia who stays stodgily devoted to Proteus, pursues him to Milan, and forgives him his trespasses. Her theme may imply simple devotion, but really it's trading in hormonal insanity.

Television does something similar. Take Paladin (Richard Boone) in "Have Gun, Will Travel" (the theme of which briefly entertains us as we wait for the play to begin), a gunfighter for hire who prefers to settle problems without resorting to violence. Yet somehow by the end of most episodes he's deftly dispatching bad guys with his gun. Television, at least in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, does not encourage you to examine the ironies of its narrative. In fact, complexities of character, motivation, and reality are frequently avoided so completely that one usually ends up rooting for a violent comeuppance at the end of the show, blissfully setting aside the contradictions in character implied or precedents that would be unacceptable in actual life. (The latter can often be casually swept away by referring to the lawlessness inherent in the myth of the American west. This same formula resurfaced most blatantly in the 1970s' show "Kung Fu," which featured David Carradine as a pacifist Shaolin Monk traveling in the old west who, despite his commitment to non-violence, employed debilitating martial arts by the end of each episode.)

Many of the TV shows whose themes Dowling employs are about justice or love, yet over and over again TV shows deny their own themes. In "The Honeymooners," Ralph Kramden lies to Alice, they make up (love and justice), but he does it again the next week; that's the inherent shallowness of early TV ― principles are forsaken for marketable climax, lessons learned one week are unlearned by the next.

And ads. Gosh. Every ad is a lie, designed to make us discount our natural skepticism and judiciousness and crave a product that may have no real relevance to our lives. Ads create deficits where they don't exist, offering to fill them, and values that are not valuable, suggesting our failure to live up to them makes us less happy. (Underarm wetness getting you down? Use this product which will clog up your pores ― your body's natural cooling system ― so that you can conform to our artificial standard of cleanliness!) Ads promote the ultimate in shallowness: reaction divorced from rational thought. In addition to the ad jingles, Dowling hangs a large billboard advertisement over a backstage area (it never plays a role in the production) like the eyes of T. J. Eckleberg in The Great Gatsby. It's there to remind us of the world in which Proteus, Valentine, Silvia, and Julia exist is one in which this shallowness has taken cultural root.

Or perhaps it's just an ambiance, the sole purpose to set the play in a particular time rather than connect the play's themes and characters to that time. I believe that if one stops to think for even a second, one moves from the latter to the former, from ambiance to commentary. So what does it do to Shakespeare's comedy to make this medium (television), this music (rock and roll), and the persistent reminder of art in the service of commerce (advertising) the conduit through which we explore themes of love, friendship, betrayal, and justice? Dowling's production suggests that Shakespeare's comedy is also a pop cultural moment, replete with the attendant shallownesses.

2. Live! From Culver City! It's Shakespeare Live!

This idea ― Two Gentlemen of Verona as pop culture ― is emphasized by the production's conceit. We're not watching a production of Two Gents; we're watching a live TV broadcast of a production of Two Gents. Why? Initially, I thought Dowling was simply drawing a parallel between a moment of early media in America and a moment of early comedy in Shakespeare's oeuvre ― both exhibit a kind of unrefined roughness and, despite the inherent complexities of both media, a kind of innocence.

The adaptive approach, however, takes us further. If early television enforces pat resolutions at the end of a pre-determined time frame regardless of the problems that need to be resolved, does that not account for the unfortunate brevity of resolution in Act 5? Proteus, in the act of raping Silvia, is stopped, apologizes, and is forgiven, with time left over for a word from our sponsor. The nature of televised narrative might also explain shallow friendship. Proteus throws over his sworn friend Valentine twice, once when he begins to pursue Valentine's love and once when he betrays Valentine to Silvia's father, but is quickly returned to his status as friend in the play's final moments, not so unusual in TV land where friendships (and love affairs!) between a protagonist and a guest star are forged, broken, and resurrected (and then subsequently non-existent) all in the space of 30 or 60 minutes.

In fact, if we accept the implications of Dowling's staging one might ask if Two Gentlemen of Verona makes a better television show than stage production? One of the most interesting experiences of this production is the dual experience of watching the play as both at the same time. Gil and I have written about the differences ― imaginative space vs. realistic space; audience-selected point of view vs. director-selected point of view; etc. ― between the two, and it's something of a mind-bender to get to do both at once. I frequently caught myself looking from the three-dimensional full-color action in front of me to the two-dimensional gray action depicted to one side, and usually I was doing it in order to see the action from a different perspective. One of the cameras was positioned at the back, showing an angle I would not otherwise have been able to see. There was something altogether Cubist about the experience.

The comparison, in the end, is about visuals. And except for the tremendous implications of television as a medium, put into play by five decades of experience and criticism, I don't think the visual rendering of Two Gentlemen as television added much to the immediate experience, largely because the device did not affect the language of the play. We are provided with two ways of seeing, but only one of hearing, which emanates exclusively from the stage, relegating the video screens to curiosities.

On the flip side, this idea of a live televised Shakespeare event reminds us of the great promise television once had, when a comic like Ernie Kovacs ad-libbed and invented his way through the transition from vaudeville to cathode ray tube, when Edward R. Murrow fought to use the new medium to increase our understanding of the world rather than cloud it, when Rod Serling found the perfect venue for establishing epigrammatic science fiction and fantasy storytelling. And Dowling's production reminds us of Paul Nickell's "Studio One" production of Coriolanus (1951) or the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production of Macbeth (1954), anthology shows that sought to bring quality drama to people's living rooms. It also, I think, alludes to the Bill Colleran attempt to transport the live theater production of John Gielgud's Hamlet (starring Richard Burton) to a cinema audience by filming the show over two nights, then releasing it in 1964 for a limited engagement in movie houses.

Film itself was once a new medium, and in its silent period between 1899 and 1929, hundreds of films were made that drew on Shakespeare as a source. Kenneth Rothwell points out in his book, A History of Shakespeare on Screen, that Shakespeare accounted for less than one percent of the roughly 150,000 silent films made during the period, but it's still impressive that, given the primacy of language to what we imagine Shakespeare to be, silent filmmakers would have tapped those works at all. It may be that the purveyors of an infant medium sought to lend legitimacy to their work by turning to established art, specifically the greatest playwright ever. Nor is it surprising given early silent film's initial connection to the theater ― the first films depicted stories by directing a camera at a small stage area from a position approximately in the middle of what would have been the audience and letting it photograph the action unedited.

Early television displays some of the same concerns as early film, and shows that drew on established high art or relied on entertainment's theatrical ― vaudevillian ― antecedents remind us that a new medium's first attempts often include imitation. Dowling's production evokes this burgeoning moment in television history. A harried director herds actors, tries to get things set for taping, and counts down to the action both at the beginning of the play and after intermission. (The actor who does this is not listed as a character in the program.) There's a wonderful energy to this as a framing device, and I came away remembering how much I like watching vintage '50s TV both for its newness and its lack of established convention. I wonder if, when Shakespeare's work began to hit the stage the early 1590s, audiences felt the same way. I also wonder if it was Dowling's intention, in any way, to inspire the audience to remember a half-century old medium with fondness.

3. It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings!

I think this review is a little like a Dowling production (only less entertaining). Sixteen paragraphs later you're probably wondering, when are we going to get to the Shakespeare? When we look at all the stuff thrown at Shakespeare in this production, what we find is that an emphasis on audience supersedes the emphasis on Shakespeare. It's as if the operative question in the production is "what will leave the audience thinking they enjoyed this play?" rather than "what will make this a coherent text to a modern audience?" That's a subtle difference, but thinking back to Merchant of Venice, where Dowling seemed to play down the trial scene in favor of Portia and Bassanio's romance, to Midsummer Night's Dream with its high-production, Broadway-styled musical numbers, to this Two Gentlemen of Verona, the approach seems consistent.

So what? Purists complain that Shakespeare gets lost in all the hubbub. Elitists say it ain't really Shakespeare and that an audience swayed by it must be a buncha rubes. Others leave the theater thinking it was simply a lot of fun. What matters, I think, is its place in the cumulative effect. Every Shakespeare production we see adjusts our idea of what Shakespeare is, what belongs in a production, what makes good theater. Those of us who attend Shakespeare productions regularly wait for something competent that brings the texts we love to a full life, or something new that causes us to re-imagine the text in an unforeseen way, or something moving that connects us to the text in an indelible way. Dowling productions remind me how malleable Shakespeare can be, and whether one believes a show like Two Gentlemen of Verona does harm to Shakespeare or brings his work to an audience in a more accessible, highly entertaining way, what really matters is its modulation of the ongoing debate ― Shakespeare, language, culture, interpretation, comedy, what have you.

Well, I hear the fat lady singing. Somewhere a Joe Dowling production must be going on. I think I'll go watch TV.

Logged by Randall

Photos: (top) Valeri Mudek as Silvia, Randy Reyes as Speed, and Sam Bardwell as Valentine; (bottom) Jim Lichtscheidl as Lance and Wyatt Jensen as Crab, in Joe Dowling's Guthrie Theater production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

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