Crumpled sheets of paper adorn the walls and ceiling of Derek McLane’s set for The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a Fiasco Theater production now at the Theatre for a New Audience. These mangled pages suggest the secret letters Shakespeare’s lovestruck courtiers are always reading and ripping up impetuously. Or are they leaves falling from trees, reminding us that nature, like love, works in cycles? Watching this romantic comedy, directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, I was reminded that it counts among Shakespeare’s earliest works — and hardly his finest. Maybe those pages also evoke a laboring playwright’s discarded drafts?
The striking background image offers one of the only subtleties in this drastically pared-down staging. Fiasco manages with a cast of six who try hard to please — mugging endlessly, strumming ditties, and delivering lines for cutesy, illustrative effect. The jokiness doesn’t leave much room for poetic reflection. Sure, the story stays intact: When best buddies Valentine (Zachary Fine) and Proteus (Noah Brody) compete for virtuous Sylvia (Emily Young), everyone learns the hard way that (as Proteus says) “in love, who respects friends?” But in this bland version, betrayal and forgiveness come instantaneously and feel utterly inconsequential. If only those beckoning pages could nourish bolder visions and more artful speech.