Director P.J. Paparelli often refers to the title of his new gig at the Shakespeare Theatre Company as “the two gents.”
That would be “The Two Gentleman of Verona,” one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, and to Paparelli’s way of thinking, his most youthful. One way or another, you can expect that youth will be served in his production of the play.
“The Two Gentleman of Verona” is lumped in with Shakespeare’s comedies, a kind of precursor to “The Comedy of Errors,” when the Bard was more assured in matters of twins, doubling up, the big laughs and setups. In “Verona” Shakespeare was not yet the poet that he would soon become, most notably in “Richard II” and “Romeo and Juliet,” two later but still early plays that sang with true poetic music and genius.
“It’s a comedy,” Paparelli says of ‘Two Gentlemen.’ “But I like to think of it leading to “Romeo and Juliet.” Both plays are about young people—in R&J’s adolescence, here, maybe late high school or college. To me, it’s about young people learning about the real meanings of friendships, love, jealousy, real adventure and challenges. Like a lot of his plays that are, like you say, dense, it’s full of possibilities. Things went completely wrong for the protaganists, which is why it’s a tragedy. Here, it could have gone wrong—two life-long, steadfast friends fall out over a woman—a situation that can always go wrong.”
“I like the challenge of doing ‘Verona’ because it’s not done very much,” Paparellli said. “The Shakespeare Company did it a few years ago, but it’s still rarely done. But I think you can find all sorts of later Shakespeare tropes here—strong female characters, issues of friendship, outlaws in a forest and so on.
“One of the things about Shakespeare is how we confront him early on,” Paparelli said. “In high school, he’s sort of shoveled at kids. I spent a lot of time trying to get it, to understand it all and it’s not that easy.”
This production of “Verona” is very special to Paparelli, 37. He got to plunge deeply early and with lots of responsibilities right here with the Shakespeare Company, where he worked under Artistic Director Michael Kahn as assistant and associate director from 1998 to 2004. “So this is really a wonderful thing for me,” he said It’s like coming home.”
Listening to him talk, there’s a youthful precociousness in his voice even though he’s amassed quite a reputation and impressive credits already, including currently running the American Theatre Company in theater-crazy Chicago for the past seven years. Shakespeare isn’t much on the seasonal bill at the ATC, which concerns itself with contemporary, often new American plays and issues. “We try to be like the Public Theatre in New York,” he said. “Our plays are on the edge, new, fresh, often dealing with contemporary issues.”
Prior to that, Paparelli was artistic director of the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, a company that had originally been brought to prominence by Molly Smith, now the high-profile artistic director at Arena Stage.
“Two Gentleman of Verona,” which features Adam Green and Miriam Silverman in a large and stellar cast, is the tale of Valentine and Proteus, boyhood friends raised in Verona who are thick as blood brothers until both fall in love with the comely Sylvia, the daughter of the Duke of Milan. Things happen—jealousy, fights and love and the whole damn thing. Still, it’s awfully funny. “But you know,” Paparelli said, “It could have gone the Romeo way.”
That observation mines the fact that many of Shakespeare’s comedy are only a split hair away from tragedy, that his tragedies are replete with comic characters at times (with the exception, perhaps of “Macbeth”).
Paparelli thinks “Verona” is about youthful angst, so don’t be shocked if you think you’re hearing things—like Bono, Maroon Five and other contemporary rock. “Music is one way of contemporizing. It will be Verona, but you might see a McDonald’s there.”
One thing that won’t change is the dog. You might recall a sequence in the Oscar-winning film “Shakespeare in Love” where the young Bard is working on “Verona”. “Don’t forget to put in a dog,” a friend tells him. “The queen loves dogs.”
Oliver, a veteran Broadway performer in ‘Annie’ among other shows, a super-pro mutt, takes on “Crab” the dog, although he doesn’t answer to the name.
“But,” Paparelli says, “he’s a real pro.”
As is often the case with Shakespeare, the play will be familiar. And with Paparelli there, it will be as fresh as an adolescent with attitude.
“Two Gentleman of Verona” will be performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, January 17-March 4. For more information visit ShakespeareTheatre.org.