The best production I’ve ever seen of The Two Gentlemen of Verona was set in Amish country (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2006, dir. Bill Rauch). Verona was a Mennonite community, Milan was a swish Stepford-in-Brooks-Brothers villa, and in Act 5 a rave full of Goths popped up. It was the most ludicrous thing. It sounds like what happens when a director loses a bet with a sadistic dramaturg. But it really did work, and it made the play work.
Two Gents is not a great play, okay. It’s about a love quadrangle among Proteus and Valentine (best friends from Verona), and Julia and Sylvia (women from Verona and Milan respectively). Proteus starts out interested in Julia, then he and Valentine travel to Milan and both fall in love with Sylvia, who has fallen in love with Valentine. Julia disguises herself as a boy (drink!) and travels to Milan to be near Proteus, there’s a bit with a dog, at the end everyone runs off to the woods and Proteus tries to rape Sylvia, and everyone who has lines afterwards seems basically okay with that (nb who doesn’t have lines: Sylvia). It is, as they say, problematic. What the Amish setting did was suggest how Julia – who otherwise seems clever, sensible and observant – could have reasonably fallen in love with Proteus – who takes all of five seconds after leaving home to betray his friend, his fiancée and do a bunch of stupid, malicious things – without Julia just being a giant gooey idiot. Maybe Proteus is a sheltered guy newly out in a world he’s been told is dangerous and immoral, and he doesn’t have the toolbox to participate in it ethically. (It doesn’t at all excuse Proteus from behaving horribly – but it explains why Julia missed the signs.) Now if I remember correctly my 2006 play programme, the idea behind the CONCEPT was that the director was having trouble differentiating between “Verona” and “Milan” in the play. He decided to make them as radically different as possible: Verona insular and superficially strange, but deeply supportive and loving; and Milan welcoming and attractive, but with underlying danger if strangers don’t conform. In the woods, a bunch of “outlaws” terrify Valentine, then befriend and help him; these became the Goths, who seem terrifying to upper-middle-class dads but are actually laid-back and benevolent. It made so many of the characters’ odd reactions and quick turnarounds plausible.