As the actors in this production’s non-canonical introduction gleefully point out, “The Two Noble Kinsmen” is the sole Shakespeare play never yet committed to film. It is, dramaturgically speaking, lumpy and weird, and is either a slapstick tragedy or a comedy where somebody dies at the end. Moreover, it’s not even entirely written by Shakespeare, 17th-century hack John Fletcher having picked up the slack in some places. So it’s a little baffling to find yourself enjoying the thing.
Guerrilla Shakespeare Project hasn’t retooled the play or ironed out its eccentricities, but their whole cheerful production is bedecked with actors who speak the verse well and work modern comedy into the play’s cracks. Helmer Diana Buirski never lets the pace flag for a moment, and comes up with some smart illustrative staging — doubly impressive in a production that appears to have been underwritten with the change in everyone’s pockets.
Scott Raker and Jacques Roy are terrific as cousins Palamon and Arcite, a pair so changeable that they can swear eternal fealty to each other one moment and brawl over pretty Emilia (Lindsay Torrey) the next (Raker amusingly makes the switch mid-sentence). Given their wild mood swings, Raker and Roy wisely opt to play the characters as total nitwits, and anyone who has brothers and remembers being about 9 will recognize the behavior.
They, and the various Theban gods, occupy the upper social strata of the play, which will look familiar to anyone who’s seen “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (also partly based on the “Knight’s Tale” section of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”).
A little lower on the social register, we have the Jailer’s Daughter (Kimiye Corwin), so low-class that she doesn’t even have a name. Naturally, she falls for the highfalutin Palamon, who doesn’t know she exists, and abandons her similarly nameless boyfriend, Wooer (Jordan Kaplan).
Corwin and Torrey have a grand old time with their big comic monologues, the latter with some help from Raker and Roy, who hold picture frames over their mugs and smile winningly to illustrate the choice she must make between the two men. Buirski doesn’t let more than a few minutes go by without some innovation like this — most are big and silly, like newlywed Theseus’ barely concealed admiration of Arcite’s posterior — but she keeps her actors reined in to a degree that makes even the dumbest gags appealing all the way through the show. The only sour note is the peasant comedy subplot, played too broadly (and with ear-piercing Southern accents) by actors who do totally credible work in their other roles.
Speaking of sour notes, it wouldn’t be fair to review Guerilla’s production (not to be confused with Gorilla Rep, by the way — a company similarly light of wallet and devoted to the Bard) without mentioning the hilarious music, which at first feels like a portent of terrible sounds to come. The first thing you see upon entering the theater is two guys, one in laurels, playing Simon and Garfunkel on the acoustic guitar and the recorder. Turns out they’re in on the joke: A recorder version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” shows up during the wedding of Hippolyta (a game Ginger Eckert) and most of the cast dances to the Ikettes at one point. Unbelievably, this feels appropriate.
The whole thing is goofy and fun and pleasantly contemporary in a way that will hopefully pay off for the company. B.O. prospects are never high for tiny out-of-the-way Off Broadway houses, but even if Guerrilla hadn’t made the show deeply entertaining, they could be counted on to attract Bardophiles. As it is, word of mouth may give the tiny crew a leg up.