Story: Three queens approach Theseus, king of Athens, demanding justice for the murder of their husbands by Creon, the treacherous king of Thebes. Theseus agrees and wages a victorious war against Thebes. Theban cousins, nobles Arcite and Palamon, fight against Athens in the army of their corrupt uncle Creon, even though they are appalled by his actions.
Following the defeat of Thebes, Arcite and Palamon are imprisoned in Athens, where at first glance they fall in love with Emilia, sister of Theseus’ wife Hippolyta. Meanwhile, the jailer’s daughter becomes infatuated with Palamon and helps him escape after Arcite has been freed by relatives. Arcite and Palamon become bitter rivals for the hand of Emilia.
Theseus declares that the two must engage in a duel, with the winner allowed to marry Emilia and the loser to be executed. The unrequited love of the jailer’s daughter for Palamon drives her mad, and so her father enlists the aid of a physician to convince her that a former suitor of hers is actually Palamon in hopes of helping her regain her sanity.
Highlights: Earlier this summer St. Louis Shakespeare performed Timon of Athens, generally considered one of Shakespeare’s least successful efforts and thus rarely presented through the centuries. Now, the venerable St. Louis troupe presents another seldom performed work by the Bard, an effort titled The Two Noble Kinsmen, which scholars generally agree was co-written by playwright John Fletcher.
Both works have been presented by St. Louis Shakespeare in its 29th season in its quest to showcase all of Shakespeare’s 38 or 39 plays. Under the meticulous direction of Robin Weatherall, the troupe’s rendition of The Two Noble Kinsmen features some stellar performances that transcend an often mediocre interpretation of what admittedly is one of the Bard’s lesser efforts.
Other Info: Weatherall, a former member of The Royal Shakespeare Company, is known locally for his adept sound designs. That attribute is particularly noteworthy in this effort, in which Weatherall impeccably incorporates classical strains and Elizabethan-era folk music along with staccato drum beats and other ancillary sounds that bolster the two-act performance.
Additional technical work for the production is simple but effective. Pippen McGowen’s scenic design aligns a series of columns on a two-tiered platform with a horse’s head prominently displayed above the fray at stage left. It’s all handsomely illuminated by Jaime Zayas’ lighting design, with an array of quaint period costumes provided by Katie Donovan.
Michelle Wolken adds the properties design, while Ben Ritchie and Andrew Weber collaborate on the stirring fight choreography in a pivotal scene between Palamon and Arcite.
Weatherall’s direction keeps the show moving at an agreeable pace and his players are for the most part clear in their diction and presentations. Key to the success of this effort are stellar performances by Ritchie and Hannah Pauluhn.
The former is an accomplished veteran of many St. Louis Shakespeare efforts, which shows in his polished portrayal of Palamon. Ritchie can convey as much with a look (as he does when Palamon first sees Emilia) as with his rich, smooth delivery of Shakespearean dialogue.
As for Pauluhn, she’s a refreshing new talent who brings considerable conviction to her role as the simple but lovelorn daughter of the jailer, a performance that rises above the madding crowd.
There’s good work also by Emily Baker as Hippolyta, the coy queen behind the power of Theseus’ throne, Philllip Bozich as the fair-minded, troubled jailer as well as a prancing baboon in a sideshow, and Reginald Pierre as the powerful but just Theseus.
The production is hurt, though, by the apparent miscasting of Ian Geary as Arcite. Geary’s unimposing physique and comic expressions seem inappropriate for the gallant and aristocratic Arcite. Further, he simply doesn’t have the gravitas that the part would seemingly require, and is overwhelmed in his scenes with the far more accomplished Ritchie.
Additionally, Ronnie Rossi as Emilia fails to convey the young woman’s supposed love for both title characters with any persuasion. As a result, their efforts are undercut and key scenes lose what power they may have.
The sizable cast also includes Charles Heuvelman, Paul Edwards, Andrew Weber, Taylor Steward, Milly Naeger, Angela Bubash, Paige Hackworth, Michael Pierce, Jonathan Elkins and Jeff Stewart.
There are aspects in this presentation of The Two Noble Kinsmen that recommend it, particularly since the play is so rarely performed. Focus on those elements and ignore the deficiencies in order to get the most out of this highly uneven interpretation.
Play: The Two Noble Kinsmen
Company: St. Louis Shakespeare
Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
Dates: August 22, 23, 24, 25
Tickets: $15-$25; contact 361-5664 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Kim Carlson