Interview: The M.F.A. Cast of 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona'
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, October 30, 2023
The Old Globe/University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre program has officially opened its production of Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona, playing at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre through November 5 in a limited engagement.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, set in this iteration in modern-day Italy, follows two young men in search of identity and romance, as well as Julia, the first Shakespearean female character to disguise herself as a young man. A story of both betrayal and friendship, the production is being performed under the direction of Jimonn Cole and feautring a cast of 14: Danny Adams as Duke, Kevin Alicea-Minor as Speed, Jose Balistrieri as Proteus, Luana Fontes as Outlaw 3, Chris Hathaway as Host and Outlaw 2, Madeline Grace Jones as Julia, Erick Lindsey as Antonio, Angelynne Pawaan as Sylvia, Carter Piggee as Lance, Akoni Steinmann as Turio, Vandous Stripling II as Valentine, Emma Svitil as Eglamour, Michael Underhill as Pantino and Outlaw 1, and Lisa VillaMil as Lucetta. The play also includes scenic design by Robin Sanford Roberts, costume design by Elisa Benzoni, lighting design by Jason Bieber, sound design by Evan Eason, text coaching and dramaturgy by Ray Chambers, fight direction by Ka’imi Kuoha, vocal and speech coaching by Emmelyn Thayer, and production stage management by Danielle Dudley and Nora Kessler.
I had the chance to interview three of the performers, Jose Balistrieri, Vandous Stripling II, and Madeline Grace Jones, all students in the M.F.A. program who recently appeared in The Merry Wives of Windsor, among other plays. They shared a bit about the production process and their experience within it, as well as what they hope audiences will take away from the experience.
Balistrieri, who plays Proteus, emphasized his desire to give credit due to the "uniquely diverse, talented, and unique cast of M.F.A. students," explaining, "everyone is so gifted and unique bringing their own gifts and skills as we all collectively work together to tell this story," and crediting director Cole for being a lighthouse who leads "with his fearlessness and constant hunt for truth."
Stripling (Valentine) and Jones (Julia) agreed.
"My experience with this cast, crew, and creative team has been unparalleled," said Stripling. "We’ve chosen to tackle a story with very socially challenging themes and our director, Jimonn Cole’s, approach was to center the story and concept around the actors as human beings experiencing every breath of the story. From the table to the stage, we were tasked with wrestling with and befriending the darkest parts of the script in order to reveal the light. From the first day everyone brought every fiber of themselves to the space."
He noted that he finds this production particularly relevant to today's audiences in its examination of the complications that exist in all relationships, including "how we wrestle with right and wrong in the pursuit of what our heart desires. I think this story offers very raw language that may provoke challenging discourse amongst all age groups and hopefully give us a way in to figuring out how we take steps in the direction of healing in our complex and complicated relationships."
Jones noted that performance experiences like this one are life-changing, not just for audiences, but for the actors and crew involved with it. She appreciates this production in particular, as it examines: "what you’ve just brushed off to fit in (not to cause ruckus in your comfort) when it comes to sexism, classism, and prejudice situations."
"I was able to express my vulnerability especially not just as a woman, but as a Black woman in this world," Jones explained, "dealing with the complexities of what it means to not just survive but to have the chance and the opportunity to fall in love and then for that to be ripped out of you in real time. I’m forever indebted to this role."
Balistrieri adds that the show's greater message revolves around the power of forgiveness and second chances.
"I think that’s when we’re at our best, when we support each other," he muses. "Not when we cancel out or shut the door on people for their past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other toward redemption... that is the best of humanity."
The Two Gentlemen of Verona plays at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre through November 5. Tickets are available via The Old Globe's website.