You could call it a cautionary tale.
At least, that’s how a friend of mine, the mother of two teenaged sons, took Shakespeare in Clark Park’s (SCP) production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
“Don’t ever go back to someone who treats you like that!” she admonished one of her boys as they rolled up their picnic blanket in the darkened park.
400 years young
I overheard this exchange as I roamed through the Friday-night crowd with a red bucket containing a growing pile of five- and 10-dollar bills. As a member of the Two Gents community chorus, I’d Lindy-hopped — along with a refreshingly diverse group of kids and adults — in the play’s opening scene.
And I’d had six weeks’ worth of dance rehearsals and costumed run-throughs to take in every troubling twist of this 400-year-old play.
The story, in short: Valentine and Proteus are the very definition of a bromance until Valentine’s dad sends him to Milan for the Shakespearian equivalent of a gap year. Proteus stays home, in part because he’s besotted with Julia, the proverbial girl next door (an infatuation that earns him endless ribbing from his pal).
In Milan, Valentine immediately falls for the daughter of the duke, the self-possessed Silvia (cue the sinuous saxophone riff when she enters). Naturally, Papa Duke wants Silvia to marry Thurio, a prig in a prep school blazer.
When Proteus later joins his pal in Milan, he, too falls for Silvia, his affections seemingly scrubbed clean of prior allegiances to both Julia and Valentine. What follows, of course, is a series of hilarious wooing scenes, cloaked identities and a final do-si-do that shuffles all the partners back to their intended loves.
Kids wil be kids
In SCP’s version, snappily directed by Kathryn MacMillan, it’s clear that Julia’s still furious: she glowers at Proteus before giving him a wave that’s more “Oh, fine” than “Come hither.” And he scrambles to follow her stride, limbs flailing like a puppy’s.
I have a teenager, and what I thought, watching this comic drama unfold, was “Of course they’re acting like this. Their prefrontal cortex is still under construction.”
It would take several post-Shakespeare centuries until neuroscientists peeked into the developing brain and determined that it doesn’t really master executive function — thinking through consequences, mediating impulses, measuring risk — until the age of 25 or so.
The bard was either a keen observer or had a frank memory of his own adolescent foibles. Think about Romeo and Juliet (I watched the Zeffirelli film version recently with my own impetuous 15), declaring themselves engaged a hot minute after they meet, then conspiring to sneak off and marry in the kindly friar’s no-frills church.
Still taming the shrew
I saw another problematic work, The Taming of the Shrew, earlier this summer in Central Park with an all-female cast directed by Phyllida Lloyd. The company played it as a pageant, set in what looked like the back-lot of a traveling carnival, with an opening (women in red sequined bathing suits and too much make-up) that suggested gender is always a performance.
The actor playing Petruchio, who aims to break the spirit of the perennially outraged Kate, had a grand, gender-bending time, all swagger and swear (she even got to piss onstage, standing up, thanks to some ingenious squirt device tucked into her breeches). Lloyd tweaked the ending so that Kate, after her cringe-worthy speech about how women must obey their spouses (“And place your hands below your husband’s foot.”), then ripped off her crinoline with a shout as if roaring back to her feminist senses.
The audience went wild. But I still felt troubled by Petruchio—who, in the course of “breaking” Kate, hauls her away from her family, starves her and forces her to call the sun the moon. Today, we call that emotional abuse, and it doesn’t really matter which gender is perpetrating it on whom.
Why here, why now?
Why do we resurrect these dusty tropes and visit them on contemporary audiences? Why tweak the plays, using modern settings and costumes to quash the “ick” of outdated norms?
For answer, I had to look no further than the front pages during the run up to Two Gents. While we chorus members practiced our Charleston kicks, America witnessed the nomination of a frightening demagogue, a man whose sexist, racist and xenophobic remarks could fill a folio.
He’s called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. He told the Republican Jewish Coalition, “I’m a negotiator, like you folks.” He suggested that Fox news commentator Megyn Kelly’s sharp questions might be due to the fact that she was menstruating.
We may scoff at the adolescent shenanigans in a Shakespeare play, but it’s not so funny when the Republican candidate for president behaves as if his own prefrontal cortex froze at the age of 14. It’s no comedy when the stakes are this high.
So there we were, dust still settling from the Democratic National Convention, costumed in the sunny shades of the 1950s and giving our multigenerational, multiracial, multigendered audiences something to ponder.
Here’s why: We turn to classic literature in order to learn who we’ve been and how we traveled from there to here. We read for warning (“Don’t ever go back to someone who treats you like that!”) and example (“To thine own self be true.”)
Maybe the reason to reprise Shakespeare — even an inconsistent, early-career play (besides the fact that it brought 2,500 Philadelphians together in neighborly delight over the course of five evenings) — is because we still have so much to learn. Humans are ridiculous, and flawed, and educable, and there’s plenty of hard work remaining before we take our final bow.
For Lewis Whittington's review of SCP's The Two Gentlemen of Verona, click here.