My first productions of Shakespeare’s plays were Richard III and Romeo and Juliet, in Ashland, OR, when I was in high school. That puts about 35 years of attending various productions behind me, but should not connote any degree of expertise beyond familiarity with Elizabethian theatre. I have seen most of the core repertory of histories, tragedies, and comedies over the years. Thus, when an unfamiliar title, such as The Two Noble Kinsmen, comes along, my curiosity is up. A few weeks ago, we noticed that the American Shakespeare Center included a three-week run of the show at the end of their 2013 Actor’s Renaissance Season. We fit in an evening between visitors and winter projects.
Because the plot and speeches of the play would be new to me, I decided to only review the DK Essential Shakespeare Handbook to prepare. I left Harold Bloom’s and Isaac Asimov’s commentaries on the shelf to not bias my experience. I wanted to see how the actor’s brought the play to the stage.
The story builds on the theme of courtly love. Two princely cousins, Palamon and Arcite, captured in battle, are imprisoned and anticipating execution or wasting away. Arcite, always the warrior, exercises to maintain his strength. Palamon, always the romantic, looks out the prison window and falls in love with the sight of Emilia, the sister of the queen, Hippolyta. Arcite takes a peak and is smitten too. Remaining in prison, their love triangle cannot go beyond pumping iron and reciting poetic lines. Thus, Arcite is released by the duke, but banished from the realm. The second love triangle forms as the Jailor’s Daughter falls for Palamon, and releases him into the forest, where she instructs him to wait until she can return to elope with him. He is not really hot about this idea, but still has shackles on.
Arcite discards his royal garb for country clothes in order to join in the competition for Emilia’s hand. Of course, he wins without anyone recognizing him. Palamon, still pursued by the Jailor’s Daughter meets Arcite and they fight over Emilia’s love. Morris dancing, festivities, etc. occur until the duke and queen come across Arcite and Palamon vying for Emilia. The duke sets up a challenge to determine the winner, with the loser going to the chopping block. Arcite wins, but then falls from his horse. Before he dies, he grants Palamon Emilia’s hand. The Fates determine the course of love over war in chivalry. The Jailer’s Daughter goes mad, having sought to love above her station.
After the evening, I pulled out the above mentioned commentaries to gain some clarification about this play. First, this was the last play to which about half of the text has been attributed to Shakespeare. He had been in retirement from London for a few years, and John Fletcher was the company’s many playwright at the time. Bloom’s assessment is that only the texts written by Shakespeare are worth reading. He skips past Fletcher’s scenes with barely a couple of sentences.
As to the theme and tone of the play, both Bloom and Asimov cite a weakness in the lack of social commentary. Shakespeare had addressed Greek mythology, from which this is based, and courtly love before, but usually in parody. The Two Noble Kinsmen takes seriously love at first site, the suitors facing a series of challenges to prove his love, and the woman just accepts the idiot because he completes each test. The human aspect that had made Shakespeare’s character’s continue to live for the past 500 years is lost on these shallow roles.
Therein lies the challenge to actor’s trying to bring this play to life, particularly to contemporary audiences, who are too jades to fall in love, make commitments, let alone put some effort into pursuing that love. In the fashion of courtly love, many of the scenes start and end with action, but stop so that the main character’s of the scene can go on and on in speeches about whatever state of mind they are in. I found Palamon’s (Ronald Peet) and Jailor’s Daughter’s (Allison Glenzer) portrayals to be most accessible. They also represent emotion, on the royal and commoner’s levels. Emotions lend to expressions, gestures, and action. Emotions allow Peet to stoke the fires of love into a hotter and hotter burn, climaxing with his appeal to Venus to guide him in the final challenge to the death. These lines are worth reading, hearing, and seeing. Glenzer slowly unravels her character’s wit as she realizes that her love for Palamon will not be realized. Her frenzy in the Morris Dance scene is both passionate and heart breaking.
In contrast, the other characters are mostly staid, in the courtly fashion. Arcite (Grant Davis) recites his lines with a stern look. Emilia (Abbi Hawk) slips out from her aloofness in only one scene, when she admires the flowers in the garden. Theseus (Rene Thornton, Jr.), the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta (Sarah Fallon), the Queen of the Amazons and soon to be bride of Theseus, avoid common expressions, bringing royal indignation only into the final scenes as Palamon and Arcite battle. From other productions by these actors, we know that they have the skill to fill out their roles. Thus, the question arises was their flat characterizations a directing decision to maintain the serious tone of chivalry?
For diversion, we have hilarious scenes with the Jailor (John Harrell), Wooer (Chris Johnson) of Jailor’s Daughter, Jailor’s Brother (Benjamin Curns) and Gerrold (Daniel Kennedy) who organizes the festivities of the Morris Dance scene. But, in this play, these are merely diversions between monologues on courtly love. I think that what I shall remember most about The Two Noble Kinsmen is the pre-show spoof that parodied the whole concept of courtly love to modern audiences. Benjamin Curns carries Chris Johnson on stage and sets him on a stool like a ventriloquist’s dummy. They then do 10 minute of shtick of the ventriloquist bested by his dummy, just as court love should be bested by the commoner. Unfortunately, the playwrights missed the point in the tex