Brooklyn actors are bringing ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ to TFANA’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Back in the days of King James, Shakespeare’s theater troupe was called the King’s Men.
An acclaimed modern-day Shakespearean theater troupe could be called the Kings County Men and Women, if they wished.
Most of the actors in the award-winning Fiasco Theater group live in Brooklyn, and there’s one who lives on the Upper West Side who could be an honorary Brooklynite.
Soon the Fiasco Theater will make its first ensemble appearance in Brooklyn — at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, the stunning playhouse the Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) opened in fall 2013 down the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fort Greene.
The troupe will perform “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” a late 16th-Century rom-com that was possibly Shakespeare’s first play, with previews starting April 24 and an April 30 opening.
It tells the story of Proteus, who has a loved one waiting for him back home but falls for his close friend Valentine’s beloved.
For the troupe, which was launched in 2007 by recent graduates of Brown University/Trinity Rep’s M.F.A. acting program, it’s a thrill to be acting in B’KLYN, their home turf, at Shakespeare-centric TFANA’s playhouse.
“The audiences are followers of TFANA. They’re invested in Shakespeare and in classical work,” Emily Young, who lives in Park Slope, a 10-minute bicycle ride away from Polonsky Shakespeare Center, said in a recent group interview.
Andy Grotelueschen, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, said there’s a “beautiful challenge” to performing for TFANA audiences. The three-decades-old theater company “has such a wonderful, storied history,” he explained. “When you’re on one of their stages, you are participating in that tradition.”
He remembered a hard-hat tour he took when the hybrid Elizabethan-modern playhouse at 262 Ashland Place was under construction. The building didn’t have walls yet. He stood where the stage would be.
“Hoping that we were going to have a chance to do a show there at some point, [I realized] when I would be on stage I would know what it looked like past the walls. And I knew where Brooklyn Tech High was, and I knew where Fort Greene Park was,” he said.
“It’s sort of a wonderful metaphor about understanding where you are inside the community, too. It’s going to be a great thing to remember when we go back and do the show.”
Jessie Austrian, who lives in Fort Greene a block from Polonsky Shakespeare Center with husband and fellow troupe member Noah Brody, joked that she’ll be able to run home from work for a cup of coffee.
She recalled attending a ceremony before the playhouse was built, where a rendering that was shown depicted banners inside the theater with the names of Shakespeare plays on them. One banner said “Cymbeline,” which the Fiasco Theater performed for TFANA.
Back then, TFANA didn’t have a building to call its own and staged plays in rented Manhattan venues.
TFANA Founder and Artistic Director Jeffrey Horowitz had seen Fiasco Theater’s production of “Cymbeline” in 2009 at Access Theater, a small Off-Off-Broadway venue in Lower Manhattan — and shortly thereafter signed up the troupe for the following TFANA season.
Their TFANA production of “Cymbeline” won a 2012 Off-Broadway Alliance award for Best Revival of a Play.
Something similar happened with “Two Gents,” which the Fiasco Theater performed last year at the Folger Theatre in Washington. One day, Horowitz appeared unannounced in the audience, having taken the train to D.C. to see their show. In a matter of weeks, he was negotiating with them about getting “Two Gents” onto TFANA’s 2014-2015 schedule.
The troupe decided to stage “Two Gents” — which various critics over the centuries have pigeonholed as a lightweight in Shakespeare’s canon — because after performing “Cymbeline,” one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote, they wanted to get to know him as a young writer.
“A lot of ideas that show up in later plays, you can see him working through,” said Paul L. Coffey, the actor who lives on the Upper West Side. “You’ve got some cross-dressing, you’ve got some specific word play you’ll see in other places.
“A lot of people put it down as a simple play, that it’s pretty straightforward and that he hasn’t quite worked these ideas out yet. The more we work on it, the more intricate it seems, and that thematically, he’s really working on a higher level already,” Coffey said.
Another actor, Zachary Fine, lives in the South Slope, a 15-to-20-minute bicycle ride from Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Ben Steinfeld, who is co-directing “Two Gents” with Austrian but isn’t acting in it, lives in South Orange, N.J.
The troupe has been rehearsing “Two Gents” at the New 42nd Street Studios in Times Square. On Tuesday, April 21, rehearsals will move to Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
For a week, they were rehearsing “Two Gents” during their Roundabout Theatre Company production of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” — which New York Times critic Ben Brantley called “truly enchanting.” Its run ended on April 12.
It wasn’t as hard to switch back and forth between Shakespeare and Sondheim as you might think.
“There are a lot of similarities about the worlds and the material which is that the language in a way makes your brain fire in similar ways,” Young said.
Though the actors are very focused on working as an ensemble, they’ve had other interesting gigs.
Four of them have been on Broadway: Austrian in “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Lend Me a Tenor,” Grotelueschen and Steinfeld in “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Steinfeld and Young in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
Austrian recently appeared in the new TV series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” — and Brody has been an underwear model.
Their devotion to Shakespeare’s works is “a passion that we pursue, as opposed to a responsibility that we think we hold,” Brody said.
“Shakespeare is a great love of ours,” Brody explained. “He took all of human existence and put it into language. The whole human spirit is expressed through language in those plays.”
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