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In 2005, I had the unique experience of directing two productions in Washington back to back: Romeo and Juliet at The Folger and columbinus at Round House Theatre. columbinus was an original play that I had developed by interviewing teenagers across the country as well as Littleton, Colorado, the site of the 1999 Columbine Shootings. At the center of both stories were impulsive decisions made by adolescents in the world where adults were on the parameter of their worlds. Shakespeare’s uncanny observations on human behavior rang equally as true as the material pulled from teenagers in the interview process for columbinus. Teenagers then were very much like teenagers are now.
And now, I have come back to STC and Washington with another play about passionate, impulsive teenagers. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is immensely concerned with the transformative power of love, in good ways and bad ways. It’s also immensely concerned with young people, wealthy young people (they are “gentlemen,” after all), young people who are often ignored by adults and left to their teenage caprices. One thing I learned years ago is that teenagers always assume they hold the reigns in their lives. It comes as a sudden and devastating shock when they discover they are powerless, powerless to control another person’s actions, powerless to make someone love them. The characters make tremendous choices in this play. And there are no adults around to guide them. You may think that sounds like Romeo and Juliet—and it does.
And yet, unlike Romeo and Juliet, this play isn’t a tragedy. It’s unbelievably funny, and it has one of Shakespeare’s most famous comic monologues in it. Launce’s love for his dog, unparalleled in its comedic possibility, is yet another acute study of human behavior. As some of you may know, the relationship between pets and their owners can be mini-dramas played out in real life. Shakespeare, who observes the intensity of the friendship shared by Proteus and Valentine, is doing the same thing here. We see Launce, madly in love with his mangy mutt Crab, immersed in his wandering, whimsical, one-sided conversations. Love makes everyone in this play do crazy things.
Shakespeare’s language expresses all the broiling emotions and driving passions in this play, and so I wanted to live in that world as fully as possible. However, I couldn’t help but see today in this play. Two Gentlemen reminds me of wealthy suburban life, where parents are wrapped up in their worries about the crashing economy and teenagers are left to their own devices. Our challenge is to allow the play to exist in its period while also releasing the energy and the echoes of today’s world.
We have created a hybrid world that is complex, but ultimately timeless. The flavor of the costumes is Elizabethan, as are the class structures. There are servants and masters, rapiers and farthingales. But at the same time, product placement suggests the world that consumes modern teenagers, from McDonald’s to Trojan condoms to Apple. The images that you’ll see in the Lansburgh are fragments of the world we live in: busted up, dangerous, energetic. I want to have the teenagers of today—their recklessness, their abandon, their passions, their fun—echoing through the design and Shakespeare’s words. I am madly in love with this play, and I would love to find a way to celebrate Shakespeare’s incredibly modern and observant feel for the passions and desires of the young. You will be surprised and invigorated.