Shakespeare’s ‘Two Noble Kinsmen’ a pleasant surprise to find — and watch

Lee A. Butz - Spencer Plachy (left) and Thomas Matthew Kelley portray cousins who are best friends — and in jail together — in ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.

On a sunny day this summer, I drove six hours through three states in search of the worst of Shakespeare.

“The Two Noble Kinsmen” is probably Shakespeare’s most obscure play.

(Lee A. Butz) - Eleanor Handley plays Emilia in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production of ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen.’

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Centuries have gone by without a production. It’s the only one of Shakespeare’s 37 surviving plays that has never been filmed. The top theater critics at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have never seen it. None of the three major Shakespeare theaters in Washington has ever staged it.

Until this month, “The Two Noble Kinsmen” seemed likely to thwart my quest to see all of Shakespeare’s plays before I die. Not easily deterred, I’d occasionally punch the title into Google to see whether, by some miracle, a production was nearby. Then I got a hit: a bare-bones production at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at DeSales University, in Center Valley, Pa., 50 miles north of Philadelphia.

I got into my Toyota and headed north, expecting the play to be positively butt-numbing.

Instead, I found a troupe engaged in an experiment meant to mimic the way it’s believed that plays were staged in Shakespeare’s time. The festival’s director, Patrick Mulcahy, chose a cast of mostly young actors and sent them a trimmed script to learn beforehand. Rehearsal was limited to 41 / 2 days — without a director, a set or designated costumes. Mulcahy left them mostly alone. Maybe he figured they couldn’t mess it up.

The plot is preposterous: Two aristocratic cousins who are best friends wind up in jail as prisoners of war. They decide they’ll be spiritually free — no worldly cares, only the heavenly joys of noble camaraderie.

Then they look out the window and behold the beautiful Emilia. Both want her. Neither can bear to imagine the other with her. The friendship is over. Soon they maneuver themselves out of jail and decide the only solution is a fight to the death.

It’s the last play Shakespeare worked on and probably contains the last serious poetry he ever wrote. It premiered in London about 1613. Shakespeare lived another three years but never wrote much again. Why? It’s a mystery.

In fact, “Kinsmen” is only partly by Shakespeare, who collaborated with a younger playwright, John Fletcher. Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote the first and last acts. Fletcher wrote most of the middle. A Shakespeare doughnut.

Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, has staged most Shakespeare but says he’s never tried “Kinsmen.”

“A deeply flawed play,” he says. Kahn has seen two versions. Neither impressed him.

My pursuit of the Bard started early. The first Shakespeare I saw I was acting in — when I was 10 years old. The director of a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Tuscaloosa, Ala., children’s theater sized up my acting abilities and cast me as a stone wall.

I’ve seen riveting performances, many directed by Kahn at the Shakespeare Theatre. But I’ve sought out some strange ones. One of the best dozen or so Hamlets I’ve seen starred a woman, Washington actress Holly Twyford, who played the moody, androgynous prince in a hall-of-mirrors staging at the Folger Theatre directed by Joe Banno.

I’ve seen some downright bizarre ones, too. I watched a production of “Pericles” in which a very short actress brandishing an enormous scarlet dildo played a male pimp. And I’ve seen Synetic Theater do wordless versions of “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.”

The most accomplished performance I’ve seen in an obscure Shakespeare play was Jane Lapotaire’s immensely sad portrayal of the soon-to-be-divorced Queen Katherine of Aragon in “Henry VIII.” The Royal Shakespeare Company did the play at the Kennedy Center in 1998.

The rest of “Henry VIII,” also a Shakespeare-Fletcher collaboration, was tedious, so I expected little from the Pennsylvania festival’s show. But the actors outfoxed me. They managed to tease a pretty good play out of their somewhat Shakespearean script.

The impact of Mulcahy’s idea to let the actors direct themselves? The cast took on the play with a “level of investment and an intensity of investment” that he says he’s never seen before.

After the show, I talked with several of the players, who said working on a frantic schedule without a director crystallized everything for them. “We discovered it together,” said actress Lauren Orkus.

Thomas Matthew Kelley and Spencer Plachy, who played the two noblemen, said many productions are built around a concept the director imposes on the actors. Not this time. “Concept was a word we never used,” Plachy said. “We just tried to tell the story.”

Although the play ends on a tragic note, the actors played much of it for laughs with some wonderfully absurd touches. One nobleman — forced to disguise himself — succeeds with a pair of black-rimmed glasses. One feeds the other a McDonald’s quarter-pounder and pours his red wine into a McD paper cup filled with ice.

Orkus, as the daughter of the jailer, enlivened the middle of the play — the part Shakespeare had less to do with. The daughter falls for one of the kinsmen, Palamon, and sneaks him out of the jail. He then turns his back on her, and she wanders through the rest of the play as a madwoman. As with many of Shakespeare’s crazies, we come to see her as saner than the sane people.

The play remains an ungainly mix of tragedy and farce. I asked the actors: What’s it really about? Lost love, of course. And the fickleness of fate.

Said Kelley, a rangy actor with sad, deep-set eyes: “I think it’s about how we live our lives blind to what’s important. It’s about how we’re blinded by the pursuit of honor.”

It turned out that nobody in the cast had ever seen it staged before. “It’s the bottom of the list,” they agreed.

Thanks to them, I’ve crossed it off of mine.

John Pancake was arts editor of The Washington Post from 1998 to 2006 and spent the past three years in Ukraine and Taiwan. He now lives in the Shenandoah Valley and is still in search of “All’s Well That Ends Well” and the three parts of Henry VI.

 
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