Maggie Lawrence: Talk about your choice to do The Two Gentlemen of Verona. You had a successful run of Romeo and Juliet geared to a younger audience at the Folger in 2005. Do you see adolescence as the key to understanding some of the foolish contradictions of lovers?
PJ Paparelli: I’m very fortunate that Michael Kahn has allowed me to go after this play. It’s like walking in to direct a new play, unlike Romeo and Juliet, where people already have very specific ideas about how it looks. When Shakespeare wrote Two Gents, he was very young, away from his new wife, he had just moved to London. Two Gents comes out of a young author’s way of seeing. It’s a play where love has a theatrical effect; it’s capable of transforming you into something else. This is a theme in all of Shakespeare’s plays, and it begins here in a very powerful, concentrated form.
Shakespeare also writes about teenagers so well. His young aristocrats are uncannily like contemporary American suburbanites and adolescents, particularly those with wealth—that whole experience of not getting what you want, parents either not around or very controlling and not listening, it just struck me as a very contemporary issue. It’s important in Shakespeare to let the lovers set up the circumstances, watch them try to battle with love and control it, lose to it, and learn a lot about themselves along the way.
ML: Much has been written about the weaknesses of Two Gentlemen. What do you see as its strengths?
PJP: In Two Gents Shakespeare introduces many of his most successful devices—mistaken identity, women disguised as men, comic satire of the upper classes by the lower classes—for the first time. It was the first time audiences were exposed to these amazing ideas that were fleshed out in later plays. With the character of Proteus, Shakespeare presents a young man deeply embedded in a series of relationships he thinks he can control and he ultimately can’t. The play comes very close to tragedy. Shakespeare’s saying things about friendship and love and the self that still remain challenging… Adolescents do insane things, and that’s exactly what Shakespeare was capturing—jealousy, unbridled passion, the body as a minefield—and when these emotions die down, Proteus and Valentine sober up and return to friendship. That’s what’s most important. It’s such a common story. When we’re teenagers, we covet the lives of the people we know best, accepting their faults, and want to experience what they experience. Proteus falls in love with his best friend’s girl! What he does after that makes the story something new. Two Gents oscillates between intense drama and high comedy and it’s a huge strength of the play. Some of the comic scenes are unlike any other. The dog and Launce are unique.
ML: Is Crab comic relief, or do you see him as an exaggerated mirror of how the beloved abuses the lover?
PJP: Crab the dog will be very funny. I think Shakespeare is playing with the idea of masters, and masters and dogs sharing a relationship of love. Launce believes his dog is spiting him—he doesn’t know why, but is hurt because he loves him. At the same time, Launce is learning from his own master. Proteus says he won’t fall in love and then he does.
ML: Talk about your vision for the play.
PJP: The challenge has been to find a balance of periods rather than just sticking to one. We allow class situations—masters and servants are left alone—but it’s still a hybrid between classical and modern adolescent sensibility.
There’s quite a bit of music in the play—when adolescents are in love, an iPod is always playing. We allowed as much of those mediums as possible to come through using modern songs. It’s contemporary next to Elizabethan. It challenges you to use your imagination. The staging has a lot of inconsistency— but if you read the play, we’re indoors and outdoors at the drop of a hat. Shakespeare didn’t care about foolish inconsistencies. He just wanted to give people the story.
ML: How do you see the controversial attempted rape followed by the “all that I have in Silvia” line?
PJP: The stakes are very high—the tension between all of them comes to the surface. Shakespeare loved extreme situations on stage and we’ve embraced them.
ML: How might an older audience’s reaction to the play differ from a young audience’s take on it?
PJP: The Lansburgh is a very formal proscenium stage. Shakespeare created connections with the audience, and we’re playing with that as an adolescent statement—pushing past the proscenium, over the front rows, junk thrown around as if teenagers went through here. At first it’s a bit shocking. The opening is a montage of modern Friday and Saturday nights. When love starts to unfold, we hope the audience will remember what it was like.
I hope that people leave going, “Wow, what a passionate and funny play!” I love this play—Shakespeare’s observations are so uncanny. It reflects what’s happening today, and the young can realize, “This is about me and my life.”Maggie Lawrence is a retired English and drama teacher. She has written ten plays and two screenplays, both of which won the Screenplay Writing Competition with the Virginia Film Office. She is the theatre review columnist for the Culpeper Star-Exponent.