The Two Noble Kinsmen
Bringing Friendship to the Fore
Dead Playwrights Repertory, Haddonfield Friends Meeting House, Haddonfield, N.J.
Saturday, October 12, 2013, Right side of studio space
Directed by Douglas Overtoom
A grand concept lies behind the Dead Playwrights Repertory's current three-play "Blood Is Thicker than Water" repertoire of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's and John Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Children of Oedipus, a three-part combination of Sophocles and Aeschylus plays: "Family loyalty is a powerful thing, whether it's family by blood, marriage, or friendship, and when that loyalty is shaken, tragedy inevitably follows."
It's a keen concept, but one not readily apparent in the productions themselves as presented by this community theater group located in the Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia and playing to a dozen people, mostly friends and family, in the fellowship hall of a Quaker Meeting Hall. However, as with almost all presentations at any level of theater, they do bring singular readings, new insights, and a wider understanding of Shakespeare to their stage.
The Two Noble Kinsmen, perhaps Shakespeare's last play, has, at best, dubious connections to Titus Andronicus, possibly Shakespeare's first play. Pairing it with the Oedipus plays, on the other hand, is inspired because they serve as a prequel to the action in Noble Kinsmen. The two noble kinsmen themselves, Palamon and Arcite, are introduced in Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes as two of the six captains guarding the city's gates. The plays have a structural kinship, too, especially Shakespeare's portion of Two Noble Kinsmen, which uses formalized speeches to explain the unfolding plot, an echo of the style used in Greek theater.
However, though Noble Kinsmen and Children of Oedipus are both directed by Douglas Overtoom, the two productions could not be more different in style and approach. With Kinsmen, this company has gone to great lengths to establish the Theban background, and Nina Schrader Vitullo and Eric Mills, who play Hippolyta and Theseus, sing "Chapel of Love" in the preplay entertainment. However, Overtoom cuts out altogether the Shakespeare-written first scene in which Theseus and Hippolyta, going to the chapel of love, are waylaid by the three widow queens whose husbands lie unburied in the field before Thebes. This scene explains how Theseus invades the Creon-ruled Thebes to rectify the widows' wrongs (and thus completes the story of Creon established in the Children of Oedipus plays). The scene also sets The Two Noble Kinsmen's own plot in action, as Theseus captures Palamon and Arcite, which leads to their rivalry for the love of Hippolyta's sister, Emilia. "Casting difficulties" was one explanation for Overtoom choosing to cut this scene (doubling and cross-gender casting apparently are not options with this company; the rustic scenes are cut, too). Unfortunately, the result is losing a perfect segue from the Greek prequels in both context and style.
Still, every choice a Shakespearean director visits upon the text has a pro and con, and this one has its merits. Starting the play with Palamon and Arcite in Act I, Scene 2, and then following it up with I-3's discussion between Hippolyta and Emilia (Dana Haberern) about the strong bond between Theseus and Pirithous (Overtoom), establishes the theme of bending but unbreakable friendship on which the play is based. Overtoom as director hammers home this allegory by showing us the battle of Thebes (the text has it happen offstage) with Theseus and Pirithous appearing together to fight Palamon and Arcite. The two Theban kinsmen, soon surrounded by other Athenians coming on to assist their king, fight back to back until they are knocked unconscious and end up lying on the floor, heads pillowed by the other's shoulders. Nice touch. With the queens' praise of Theseus excised, the battle's conclusion jumps immediately to a breathless Theseus asking, "What are those?" referring to the two prone kinsmen.
The contextual departure from the Greek plays is paralleled by a stylistic departure, too. Some day, maybe we'll see a formalized presentation of Noble Kinsmen and marvel at its power, but DPR's more conversational take on the play is perfectly pleasing in and of itself. The tone is established from the outset in the opening scene of Palamon (Fran Pedersen) and Arcite (Tony Vitullo). Costume designer Kim Matthews dresses the characters not as ancient Greeks but as Arthurian-era knights, befitting the story's real origin as The Knight's Tale by Chaucer. Palamon and Arcite wear identical tunics of blue and white (with different belts and boots), but in the opening scene they don modern athletic jerseys—Palamon in a Philadelphia Flyers hockey jersey, Arcite in a Miami University Hurricanes jersey—and spend the entire scene working out in a gym, concluding with a wrestling match. The whole while, they are speaking the verse, and speaking it well. Later, when Palamon comes upon Arcite in the woods and starts strangling him with his shackles, Vitullo nails Arcite's speech while struggling to get away from the grip of his best frenemy. When the two are eating, Pedersen carries on a Shakespearean (actually Fletcherian) conversation in iambic pentameter while stuffing his mouth with venison.
That they don't treat the language as a holy relic is refreshing for this production. Mills, meanwhile, presents Theseus as more comical than stoic (completely opposite from his commanding performance of the same character in Children of Oedipus). Distracted by his hot wife and desiring nothing but watching sports with her, he becomes bothered by the decisions of state as if they were a mere nuisance. Schrader Vitullo brings an Amazon's grace to her portrayal of Hippolyta, powerful yet loving in equal measures. And if the jersey-wearing opening scene is not a clue to Overtoom's decision not to take his vision of The Two Noble Kinsmen too seriously, it becomes clearly evident when Palamon and Arcite, languishing in the Athenian prison, come to the conclusion that they will turn their jail into a "holy sanctuary" of the heroic creed. Suddenly, the two (with help from the rest of the cast) break into a full-on musical production of Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock."
This approach works for the main plot; for the subplot of the Jailor's Daughter who goes mad for the love of Palamon, it becomes more problematic. Wendie Hetherington gives us indication that her Jailor's Daughter is inclining toward insanity from the start, walking on stage and singing a verse of "Chain of Fools" before her first proper appearance in the play. As she sinks into further insanity, this Jailor's Daughter goes into the mental state of a little girl, frightened by spending the night abandoned by Palamon in the wild woods (effectively presented in sound effects that come from the rest of the cast offstage). Later, she's something of an MTV addict, doing the "Safety Dance" and then singing "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." On her final exit, she makes the pitiful request of the Wooer (a clownish Charlie Kirkwood), who is pretending to be Palamon, not to hurt her when they sleep together: "If you do, love, I'll cry," she says. It's a heartbreaking moment, but the moment is broken when the couple departs reprising, together, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."
Determining whether to give it a serious or satirical reading; deciding whether to play to its archaic construction or around it: These will ever be the challenges for any production of The Two Noble Kinsmen. Overtoom could have easily presented his version as high Greek tragedy, given its sequential place in this repertoire. Instead, he decided to cater to the comedy that's rustling about in the Shakespeare-Fletcher composition and, as a result, we get an audience-friendly play about true friendships and surface infatuation.
October 18, 2013