Considered to be Shakespeare’s first play, Two Gentlemen of Verona feels a bit embryonic in many ways. This makes it a fun show to watch teens perform in. The romantic comedy has fresh honesty in the presence of people just beginning to relate to those emotions expressed in the script. This month First Stage’s Young Company shows that it’s also kind of a brilliant choice for a Zoom-based online performance format. There’s a vivid connection between ensemble, camera and audience which eliminates everything but the very nature of human action and interaction. And there are some beautiful performances in the show.
Director Marcella Kearns has kept the production simple. Characters appear as talking heads in front of black backgrounds. Given the crazy nature of Shakespearian romance, this could come across in a way that might feel unpleasantly surreal, but the Young Company has a firm and passionate hold on the underlying humanity of the script to keep the production from slipping into abstract, soullessly disembodied iambic pentameter. The format allows for a breathtaking portrait of the agony and ecstasy of young love in all its many moods. It’s restless and it’s anxious and it’s enraptured and it’s thoughtless and it’s selfish and it’s so much else.
Eloise Field cascades through an impressive range of emotions as Julia, a lady of Verona who finds herself very attracted to a guy named Proteus. The object of her love is a very problematic character on a few different levels. Liam Jeninga does an admirable job of keeping Proteus’ passions earnest even as he’s being a total jerk to Julia. A thoughtfully tender Zachary Nowacek is allowed more of a traditional romantic hero presence in the role of Proteus’ friend Valentine. Proteus falls for another lady and casually cast aside all interest in Julia. The new woman is named Silvia. Silvia is played with sharply expressive eyes and a very engaging heart by Madison Uphoff. More so than any other character in the play, Julia is a victim. Field is crushingly endearing in the role of a woman who shows great strength in the face of victimization. Kearns allows her and the unwitting weapon of her victimization a moment at the end of the play. Field and Uphoff embrace the two most emotionally dramatic roles in the play.
Kearns finds a clever framing for the light comedy of Proteus’ servant Launce and his dog Crab. Nicholas Hollenbeck plays Launce in one window as a soulful brown dog named Loki plays Crab in a neighboring window. In an era when the image of a Zoom meeting is all too familiar, the. simple act of placing a canine actor in front of a camera and labeling him at the bottom right of the window is clever every time it shows-up onscreen. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that add immeasurably to the memorability of a production.
First Stage Young Company’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona is available through Dec. 14. For more information, visit First Stage online.