It’s probably safe to say that “The Two Noble Kinsmen” is nobody’s favorite Shakespeare play. In fact nobody’s really sure how much of it Shakespeare wrote. Most agree that it’s a collaboration with John Fletcher, but scholars don’t entirely concur on the division of labor.
The play’s rarity on major stages may be blamed in part on its dubious parentage, but the new production at the Public Theater — the first full one from this staunch supporter of the Bard — reveals that questions of legitimacy are hardly the work’s only drawbacks. Probably only a supremely gifted cast, and a director with a distinctive vision, could breathe life into the play’s arch contrivances. Darko Tresnjak’s attractive but shallow production doesn’t come close. Like too many Public Theater productions of Shakespeare, it seems to have been cast from a Benetton catalog, with pretty faces of various hues, alike in their inability to inflect the play’s rich, rococo verse with authentic feeling.
The challenge is particularly daunting here. The characters in “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” drawn from Chaucer, have an excessive, inhuman quality that sets them apart from Shakespeare’s intricately nuanced creations. There is something almost fatuous about the noble kin of the title. Arcite (David Harbour) and Palamon (Graham Hamilton) are a pair of handsome youth first seen avowing their dismay at the corrupt court of their uncle Creon. But, honorable knights that they are, they go to battle when Theseus (Sam Tsoutsouvas) wages war on Thebes to avenge the honor of three grieving queens whose husbands have been denied proper burial.
Imprisoned in Athens, and in the Fletcher-penned portion of the play, they wax so poetic on the pleasure of each other’s company that smirking is almost inevitable; you half expect the scene to turn into a classical variant on HBO’s flagrantly homoerotic “Oz.” More comically still, a single glimpse of the comely Emilia (Doan Ly), lady-in-waiting to Athens’ queen Hippolyta, puts their passions instantly in reverse. It’s a case of double-vision love at first sight. These lifelong pals are soon vowing to duel each other to the death for the sake of her love. Eventually, with the help of Theseus, they do.
The play, which contains some of the Bard’s last writing, is usually classified with the romances, and shares with them a curlicued plot full of odd reversals, a fascination with the outlandish mysteries of fate, a touch of the supernatural. The play’s major themes are romantic love and friendship, and the gods’ imponderable manner of creating or destroying them. Shakespeare’s contributions are essentially poetic: He is credited with the first and last acts, the latter featuring long, elaborate prayers to Venus, Diana and Mars from Palamon, Arcite and Emilia, respectively, that are considered the play’s standout achievements.
Unfortunately, Tresnjak’s energetic young performers are generally outmatched by the language. Eagerness is an admirable quality, but the spirited manner in which Harbour and Hamilton animate their roles doesn’t really manage to make the characters’ contradictory impulses seem human. Their transformation from beloved friends to ferocious enemies is more preposterous than wrenching. And while she certainly looks lovely enough to inspire instantaneous devotion, Ly gives a similarly ardent but hollow performance.
Exclusive to Fletcher is the subplot involving the jailer’s daughter, a victim of an excruciating, unrequited passion for Palamon. Jennifer Ikeda avoids the tricky transition from comic figure to tragic one by forsaking the comedy entirely. The role, a sort of bargain-basement Ophelia, is no great prize in any case.
The senior member of the cast, Sam Tsoutsouvas, in the ring-master role of Theseus, seems determined to make up for his compatriots’ pretty but pallid stage presences by pouring on the grandiloquence. (Michael Creason’s overwrought sound design could be toned down a notch or two, by the way.) Tsoutsouvas may also be motivated by a desire to make a memorable impression in a role that disappears for much of the play. But the actor’s high rhetorical tone lacks any emotional underpinning. Like much about this staging, on a graceful, intimate set by David P. Gordon that makes inventive use of Martinson Hall’s architectural details, it just feels empty.