Reed Martin, a writer and producer with the Reduced Shakespeare Company, is a genial guy. He has a powerful voice, one that effortlessly makes itself heard. His bald head may give away his age, but his generous smile and the mercurial spark in his eye give him a seemingly eternal youth.
The opening of his latest production, Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” is presented by Shakespeare Napa Valley and the Theater Arts Department at Napa Valley College. It plays for the next three weekends in September. He had just finished a production meeting and we sat at a long table in the NVC Performing Art Center’s Studio Theater.
Martin wanted to do “Two Gentlemen of Verona” for a number of reasons. First, as is the case with many Shakespeareans and their admirers, there is a fascination with “doing” the whole canon. It’s not uncommon for many Shakespeare aficionados to go to great lengths to satisfy their bucket list by seeing all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. This was one that Reed had never seen and never produced, and is not done very often, so when given the opportunity to choose, “Two Gentlemen” is the one he decided on.
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Second, and this is a challenge he seems to relish, he said that “Two Gentlemen,” is “problematic.” One of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, it is not as graceful as his later work. Martin said, “the ending happens very abruptly, it’s not very believable. So I am calling attention to that and really having fun with it.”
Martin had to figure out how to present this play in a way that would be compelling for a modern audience. He decided to do this by, “playing up the ridiculousness.”
“The two gentlemen are real ‘buddy buddies’—one is in love, and the other sees the girlfriend and does everything he can to steal his woman,” he said. “And then in the end, it’s like he’s forgiven instantly.”
He said they are like fraternity brothers where nothing is serious or lasts for any amount of time. Friendship between brothers is prized above the relationship with a woman and “the women have it together and the men are all...you can’t print that in the paper….”
Reflecting on this flippant nature of the characters, Martin decided to place it in the Chicago suburbs during the 1980s, like a John Hughes movie.
“Like ‘Sixteen Candles?’”
“More like ‘Pretty in Pink’ or ‘The Breakfast Club,’” he said.
This is nothing new—there is a long tradition of reinterpreting Shakespeare’s plays by placing them in modern settings, thereby giving them a relevance that a 400 year old dramatic work would not otherwise have.
Examples of this are plentiful. “Richard III” in 1995 starring Ian McKellen and Annette Bening takes place in World War II England. Baz Luhrman’s 1996 “Romeo & Juliet” takes place in “Verona Beach,” a reasonable facsimile of modern day Southern California. And, most recently, one can’t forget the Public Theater’s 2017 production of “Julius Caesar” where the title character is unmistakably dressed like Donald Trump, making the assassination scene all the more provocative.
While some may hate setting classical Shakespeare in modern settings, Martin says that he’s “not overly reverent about Shakespeare.” “For a play that maybe has issues that don’t ring quite true with a modern audience...I’ll make cuts in the way certain things are played to make it fun,” he said.
We have 300 years of criticism of Shakespeare’s plays. General consensus is that “Two Gentlemen” is not his best. In light of his other plays, scholars consider this to be a good first attempt, though some are less kind than others.
Notably, in 1921, for example, in their edition of the Cambridge Shakespeare, J. Dover Wilson and Arthur Quiller-Couch, said that upon hearing Valentine offer Silivia to Proteus, “one’s impulse, upon this declaration, is to remark that there are, by this time, no gentlemen in Verona.” Ouch.
What does Martin think of that assessment? He said it made sense. “The women in my production are very strong, but they would agree” that Proteus and Valentine are not “gentlemen.”
Seventy years later though, the scholar Kurt Schlueter said that we should give “Two Gentlemen” the benefit of the doubt. He wrote, “We should not continue the practice of holding his later achievements against him when dealing with his early beginnings.”
This is what Martin and Austin Tichenor, co-managing director of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, do. They take a Shakespeare play and remix it, giving it a new, usually comical, flair. Their last production at Napa Valley College, “Hamlet’s Big Adventure,” which was a comical prequel to the most serious play in Shakespeare’s canon.
Their breakout hit was “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” that hilariously combined all 37 plays into an hour and a half romp. It played in London’s West End for nine years. They’ve taken that success and made it into a company brand, writing and producing “The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged),” “All the Great Books (Abridged)” and “Western Civilization: The Musical (Abridged)” among many others.
“Two Gentlemen of Verona” plays in the Studio Theater at the Performing Arts Center at Napa Valley College on Sept.13, 14, 20 and 21 at 7 p.m. and Sept. 15 and 22 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for military, students or seniors, and $8 for children 12.
It will be performed at Copia on Sept. 27 and 29 and 7 p.m. and Sept. 24 and 26 at 10 a.m. Admission to these performances are free, with seating on a first come, first served basis.
You can buy tickets at performingartsnapavalley.org.