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A Midsummer Night's Dream / The Two Noble Kinsmen

Athens Is a Man's World in Women's Eyes

Brave Spirits Theatre, Anacostia Arts Center, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, November 16, 2014, second row, center of black box theater
Directed by Jessica Aimone and Charlene V. Smith

The two cousins sit on the floor, cross legged, in shin-length dingy white pants, brown and blue vests and sandals, Arcite is wearing a gray knit scarf, both holding wine glasses, to one side a leather brief case and wine bottle, in the background the streams of fabric from the maypole
Arcite (David Mavricos, left), and Palamon (Willem Krumich) in The Two Noble Kinsmen share a drink and reminiscences of the women they've conquered. Brave Spirits is presenting the play by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher in repertory with A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Kevin Hollenbeck, Brave Spirits Theatre.

There's Theseus and Hippolyta. There's Athens and, more importantly, the woods outside of Athens. There's William Shakespeare (at least half of him). And there's Billy Idol's "White Wedding" and Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door." Otherwise, there doesn't seem to be much to connect A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen—and those two songs are inserted by Brave Spirits Theatre in its repertory of the two plays at the Anacostia Arts Center Black Box Theater.

However, presented in tandem, these two Shakespeare plays, the latter a collaboration with John Fletcher, reveal a troubling connection. In both, men—even those lauded as noble—put women through psychological abuses so extreme that, in the aggregate of the two plays, one woman loses an important part of herself, one goes completely insane, two engage in a violent altercation, and two are faced with a choice of an enforced marriage versus celibacy, death, or an everlastingly bad reputation.

Through it all, Hippolyta can only watch, proud of her warrior past and secure in her royal status as the betrothed of Theseus, yet, as played by Jacqueline Chenault in both plays, troubled at what she sees happening to women around her while being an ongoing prisoner of war herself. It is Hippolyta who sings "White Wedding" leading off both plays. It's a cheesy song—"Hey little sister what have you done? Hey little sister who's the only one? Hey little sister who's your superman? Hey little sister who's the one you want? Hey little sister shot gun!"—but Chenault makes it sound more like a Celtic lament, pounding hard on the term "shot gun." When she's joined in a choral wail for the lines, "There is nothing fair in this world, there is nothing safe in this world, and there's nothing sure in this world, and there's nothing pure in this world," the awkward choice of song shifts into sly relevance.

That sets the psychological stage for both plays. However, despite this lamenting launch and the troubling misogynist undertows, both productions turn out to be delightfully comic, particularly—wait for it—The Two Noble Kinsmen. It is a play so rarely staged that the fact Brave Spirits is mounting it would be reason enough for DC-area Shakespeare geeks to see it; the fact that it is staged so intelligently and acted so deftly is reason for everybody else to check it out, too.

Brave Spirits was founded four years ago by millennial actresses Charlene V. Smith (now the company's artistic director) and Victoria Reinsel (associate artistic director). After single-play seasons with the two alternating as directors and players, they have expanded to three plays this season with the Athens repertory and, in the spring, Arden of Faversham. They also are enlisting other directors. Jessica Aimone of Pinky Swear Productions, who gave one of the most profound portrayals of Juliet's Nurse I've ever seen in Brave Spirit's Romeo and Juliet last year, directs A Midsummer Night's Dream while Smith helms The Two Noble Kinsmen.

The two plays use the same costumes: simple Athenian-looking tunics and shin-length pants by Melissa Huggins, with glittering masks for the fairies in Dream. The shared set is a maypole with, instead of ribbons, different colored sheets of sheer fabric standing at the back of an otherwise bare stage. It's aptly thematic to both plays. "No doubt they rose up early to observe the rite of May," Theseus hypothesizes when he and his hunting party come upon the four sleeping lovers in the woods in Dream, while in Kinsmen he prepares his court "to do observance to flow'ry May in Dian's wood." It also proves a most useful prop: its sheets clothe the fairies, provide Hermia's bed on the "dank and dirty ground," demarcate the kinsmen's jail cell from the garden, and serve as the bush in which Palamon hides; and it's actually used as maypole in the Morris dance.

Despite the common threads linking Dream and Kinsmen, Smith decided to spread out the actors' workload over the two plays rather than focus on mirror casting. Chenault and Ian Blackwell Rogers play Hippolyta and Theseus in both plays (doubling as Titania and Oberon, respectively, in Dream), but Smith made no attempt to match Dream's Lysander and Demetrius with the two noble kinsmen, Arcite and Palamon, nor are Hermia and Helena in Dream paired with Hyppolyta's sister Emilia and the Jalier's Daughter in Kinsmen. David Mavricos plays Demetrius and Arcite, but the characterizations are not linked. Meanwhile, Egeus and Quince in Dream and the Jailer and the Schoolmaster in Kinsmen all being played by Joshua D. Brown is the closest the repertory gets to stunt casting—no turning Oberon into Kinsmen's Doctor or Puck into the Jalier. The fact that Snug and the Jalier's Daughter are both played by Jenna Berk is a happy happenstance: Berk's Snug journeys from timid joiner to roaring Lion in a bit part in Dream while her Jalier's Daughter journeys from presumptuous young lady to lost little girl in a centerpiece role in Kinsmen.

The most creative casting in the two plays is with Dream's Rude Mechanicals. In addition to Berk as Snug, Kelly Elliott's Bottom and Carolyn Kashner's Snout are played as women. Starveling (Zach Roberts) and Flute (Willem Krumich) are men. Thus, Quince goes all-out in cross-gender casting for their presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe as Bottom and Snout are set down to play Pyramus and his father, respectively, while Flute and Starveling are cast as Thisbe and her mother. It's a nice little inside joke, especially as Krumich looks and behaves more likely to play middle linebacker on a National Football League team than a romantic young woman, but it also plays out comically as the two men look at Quince in annoyed bewilderment, and Roberts' Starveling is later elated to be recast as Moonshine.

Their production of Pyramus and Thisbe is the comic highlight of Dream. Bottom has chosen to wear a cheap mustache that can't withstand all the p's he utters in his speeches. Starveling has spent rehearsals imitating Bottom in his movements, and he does so during the actual play, swinging his arms about shadowing Bottom's overly theatric gestures so that she is constantly ducking the lantern in Moonshine's hand. Flute tries to use a high-pitched voice but decides in his final scene—when he finds the dead Pyramus—that he can be more effective using his normal voice: "These lily lips, this cherry nose, these yellow cowslip cheeks, are gone, are gone!" he says with dramatic insistence, but it's all the more comical in baritone.

Aimone chooses to keep many of the nobles' insulting interjections in this scene, too, something many recent productions of Dream delete. It makes sense here, for these lovers are shallow, self-involved things. Mavricos's Demetrius is an arrogant jerk, and Ben Lauer's Lysander is no less pompous in his attitude. When he wakes up under the influence of the love juice, he is physically on top of Helena in less than a heartbeat. Amber A. Gibson makes Helena so self-centered, her telling Demetrius about Lysander's and Hermia's flight just seems like the obvious thing she would do. We also understand how she takes such a big leap of logic in accusing Hermia (Renana Fox) of being in cahoots with Demetrius and Lysander: nobody loves her, therefore when they do start professing love to her they had to conspire to do so and could only do so with the complicity of Hermia, who doesn't really love her, either. As for Hermia, she's the shortest Hermia I think I've ever seen. That's not meant as demeaning. Fox seems to have been cast specifically because she could pass as a puppet and go all Chucky on everybody, bringing a wonderful blend of flightiness and spitfire to the part. If Helena hadn't run away at the end of the lovers' quarrel, Fox's Hermia was preparing to do some serious damage to her frenemy. Left alone on stage, though, she softens into loss and confusion and begins singing "Let My Love Open the Door to Your Heart": "When everything feels all over, everybody seems unkind, I'll give you a four-leaf clover, take all worry out of your mind." This caps the play's first half on an upbeat note. (Speaking of notes, this is a musically talented troupe with beautifully blending vocals.)

Fitting the play's run into two hours, including intermission, Aimone trims much from the fairies. Most notable among the sprites is Anderson Wells as a put-upon Puck, who has a thing for Oberon but is growing tired of being his errand boy. Chenault and Rogers don't alter their portrayals much when shifting from Athens' rulers to the Fairy King and Queen, and overall their playing of their royal roles has little in the way of underlying inflection. This seems intentional as it actually serves as an attribute in their portrayals.

Theseus is a hero, by all accounts a good guy, and he treats Hippolyta with genuine affection. However, he seems incredibly harsh and unfeeling toward Hermia's plight, and his previous rapes and abandonment of women are chronicled by Oberon when he points out how Titania helped Theseus in his escapades. Oberon, meanwhile, may show compassion for Helena's plight, but he defrauds his wife to get from her a changeling boy whom Titania vowed, to the boy's dying mother, she would raise. "For her sake I will not part with him," she tells Oberon. "The fairy land buys not the child of me." So Oberon slips her a drug leading her to bang on an ass-headed weaver and give up the boy. Rogers manages these contradictions in both Theseus and Oberon by playing all his lines with earnest neutrality, leaving us with a man we can admire who nevertheless treats women badly when it suits his needs, sometimes with the help of Titania (by report) and then Hippolyta in Kinsmen. In Chenault, both Hippolyta and Titania show warrior spirits, but in the end they allow themselves to be fully conquered by Theseus and Oberon. Do they have a choice?

Theseus hasn't changed in The Two Noble Kinsmen. His fame for "godlike honors" manifests in his setting aside his wedding to Hippolyta in order to wage war on Thebes at the insistent begging of three widow queens whose husbands' corpses lie rotting in the fields of Thebes, supplication seconded by Hippolyta herself. Yet, Theseus forces a marriage on his sister-in-law, Emilia (Kashner), to one of two knights she doesn't even know simply because they fell in love with her at first sight and intend to fight to the death for the right to claim her. She will try to love either one, but in fact she has earlier confessed to her sister that she doesn't intend to "love any that's called man," prompting Hippolyta to call her "weak sister." Hippolyta ramps up her superiority even more by talking of her "all-noble Theseus, for whose fortunes I will now in and kneel, with great assurance that we, more than his Pirithous, possess the high throng in his heart." Pirithous, by the way, is Theseus's best bud, the clear rival in his love for Hippolyta (though, as played by Roberts, Pirithous is clearly a good guy, too). "I am not against your faith, yet I continue mine," Emilia replies to Hippolyta, leaving one to wonder whatever happened to the once mighty queen of the Amazons; her younger sister seems the more stalwart of the two.

The play's true tragedy (and I'm including Arcite's eventual death in this assessment) is that of the Jailer's Daughter. Berk appears as a well-adjusted, confident young woman in her first two scenes, in the first commenting to her father (Brown) and wooer (Wells) on the two new prisoners, Arcite and Palamon (she speaks as she adjusts the maypole sheets to create the perimeters of the prison and adjoining garden), and in the second expressing in a soliloquy her infatuation with Palamon (Krumich). She reports that he kissed her, apparently on the lips. In Berk's playing, we are confident in her assessment of Palamon's affections even though we see no evidence ourselves (though we do later get report from both Arcite and Palamon about their earlier conquests of young maids, resulting in bastard children—boasting that comes even as they are preparing for their duel over Emilia). Even if the Jalier's Daughter is embellishing the truth, Palamon's abandonment of her disrupts her sensibilities, coming as it does after she risks not only her life but her father's life to help him escape and subsequently being stranded in the woods as night falls. "I am very cold, and all the stars are out, too," she says plaintively at the start of one of her soliloquies, at the end of which she curls up on the floor next to the wall in desolation. This is one of the great roles in the entire Shakespeare canon (though Fletcher probably wrote it) and Berk effectively meets the challenge of playing her. From her coy joy to her trepidation at Palamon not meeting her as promised, to her palpable fear, to her vacant stare in the Morris dancing scene, we feel this woman breaking down. "Let my love open the door," she sings distractedly.

How the Jailer's Daughter's story plays out in the context of the rest of this play's archaic plot is a credit to Smith, whose sure-handed direction lifts Kinsmen's plodding narrative to life by, counterintuitively, focusing on the play's ceremonial structure (judicious trims rather than wholesale cuts bring the play in at 2 1/2 hours, plus intermission). Smith replaces the speech by Chorus and the wedding song that opens Kinsmen with the opening dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta from A Midsummer Night's Dream, a device that works perhaps only when pairing the plays in repertory. Instead of Egeus entering and forestalling the royal couple's nuptials with the whole Hermia-Demetrius-Lysander business, it's the three widow queens who enter and ritualistically kneel before Theseus. The action moves along with such studied formality; it's in the way the widows supplicate and the way Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emilia reply; it's in the way Theseus ponders his decision, seriously deep in thought off to the side; it's in the way Arcite and Palamon discuss honor before the battle for Thebes and after their imprisonment. We could be watching an academic rendition of a Greek tragedy, save for Berk inserting a breath of freshness with the first appearance of the Jailer's Daughter.

Flute as Thisbe wears a ballerina dress over his shin-length pants and bare feet, a blue scarf draped around his arms, and a blond wig with hands clasped together; Snug as Lion has her hands raised holding the mantle across the back of her neck, flowers in her hair; Starveling as Moonshine holds up the lantern in his right hand, holds a stuffed dog in the crook of his left arm and holding a thorn bush in that hand, his head down.  We see the backs of the noble audience's heads. Maypole is in the background.
Flute as Thisbe (Willem Krumich, left), Snug as Lion (Jenna Berk, center), and Starveling as Moonshine (Zach Roberts) perform Pyramus and Thisbe for the royal audience in Brave Spirits' production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Anacostia Arts Center. Photo by Kevin Hollenbeck, Brave Spirits Theatre.

That contrast, however, soon becomes a dual weave in the dialogue. After Arcite and Palamon speak in mighty terms about how they will turn a lifetime of captivity into a state of honored grace, they chance to glance Emilia and her waiting woman in the garden. Smith stages this with Palamon first and then Arcite miming looking out a window toward the audience while the women are on the other side of the stage; it's becoming an overworn staging device, but it at least allows us to see the expressions of growing wonder mingled with lust in the eyes of first Krumich and then Mavricos. With Emilia's departure, the two kinsmen begin discussing her beauty and proclaiming their love for her. "You love her then?" Palamon asks. "Who would not?" Arcite replies. "And desire her?" Palamon presses. "Before my liberty," Arcite answers. Pause. "I saw her first," Palamon says, and this interjection shifts the whole proceeding down the path of comic absurdity. In fact, everything—their formal challenge to fight, their duel, their tournament competition, and Arcite on his deathbed bequeathing Emilia to Palamon—hinges on Arcite's initial refusal to grant Palamon first dibs.

The key to absurdist humor is playing it straight. Mavricos and Krumich maintain a gravitas in their bearing, but their line readings are timed so deftly that the humor in their conversations with each other, with the Jailer, and with Theseus skips to the fore. It's funny how devoutly these two "noble" kinsmen go about their incredibly silly rivalry, all for the love of a woman who has no idea they exist. Even when their rivalry is revealed to her, Kashner's Emilia looks upon them in a perplexed expression that says, "you're kidding, right?" But there's Hippolyta, pressing Emilia to choose one or the other lest "that face of yours will bear the curse else of after ages for these lost cousins." And there's Theseus's remedy: The two kinsmen should fight with three other knights by their sides, winner gets to marry Emilia, all the losers lose their heads. You are kidding, right?

Though the proceedings have become a full-blown comedy, it is not in a satirical vein. Rather, it presses home the repertory's point. We are laughing at what fools these mortals be even as we see the victimization of both Emilia and the Jalier's Daughter, and as we had seen of Helena, Hermia, and Titania. It's funny how men, in the name of duty (with oftentimes logical reasoning) and in the name of honor (with oftentimes warped logic), head down thorny paths dragging unwilling and willing victims, usually women, through psychological briars.

Eric Minton
November 20, 2014

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