KPBS AIRDATE: August 27, 2004
Director Darko Tresnjak has an uncontrollable attraction to “bruised beauties.” That’s what he calls the neglected literary wallflowers he loves to tease into the dramatic dance. Fresh from a well-received production in New York’s Central Park, Tresnjak has brought to the Old Globe a lesser-known, rarely-produced Shakespearean tragicomedy, “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” Written in 1613, just three years before the Bard’s death, the play was attributed to “the memorable worthies of their time, Mr. John Fletcher and Mr. William Shakespeare, Gent.” How much that Gent contributed is still hotly debated, though most concede that the ‘lesser writer,’ the prolific Fletcher, probably wrote about 60% of the play. It was the last piece of writing from the Bard, and it features the convoluted plotlines of a Shakespeare comedy-romance, but it’s much darker, ending on a decidedly bittersweet note — with both a marriage and a death. It also has, a la “Hamlet,” a young woman who goes mad from unrequited love. It’s been seen as the bleak parallel universe of the sunny “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Both are based on “The Knight’s Tale,” the first story from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales,’ and both begin with the wedding of the Athenian Duke, Theseus, to the Amazon warrior, Hippolyta. The kinsmen of the title are Theban cousins, Palamon and Arcite, who have fought valiantly in the war against Athens, but have been captured and imprisoned by Theseus.
In jail, they swear undying devotion to each other — until they spy Emilia, the sister-in-law of Theseus, with whom they both fall madly in love. The daughter of their jailer, meanwhile, has fallen in love with one of them, and she’s the poor soul who goes mad. In the end, the gods are consulted to sort it all out, gallantry trumps enmity and only the insane are happy in love.
Like the gorgeous “Pericles” Tresnjak directed at the Globe in 2002, this production has the fanciful elements of myth and fairy tale. This is a very good thing, since character development isn’t really a strong suit of the play. The two kinsmen are virtually indistinguishable, even to Emilia, their love-object. She could marry either one and can’t choose between them. The most fully realized and sympathetic character is the Jailer’s daughter, who’s also given the most compelling performance. As we follow her torturous emotional journey, through devotion, rejection, rape, madness and deluded joy, Bree Elrod captures — and breaks — our hearts.
Outdoors in Balboa Park, under the stars, the dusky night proves a fitting setting to this dark romance. The production is all shadows and light, with stunning stage pictures created by superb scenic, costume, lighting and sound design. With tender loving care, Tresnjak has made his ‘flawed beauty’ irresistible.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.