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The Two Noble Kinsmen

It's a Mad, Man's Mad World

Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival, California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, California
Saturday, June 30, 2018, Lawn Space 4, first row center
Directed by Elizabeth Swain

Trust can be an elusive thing, even if William Shakespeare's name is attached. Such is the case with The Two Noble Kinsmen, which Shakespeare at the end of his career cowrote with John Fletcher. Even the two actors playing the two noble kinsmen headed into the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival production's preview performance unsure if they could trust this verse-heavy, melodramatic mashup of Greek mythology, Chaucer romance, and crazy country bumpkins.

Production photo of Arcite and Paloman up on the ledge looking down at Emilia in the garden below, her attendant in the backgorund.
The moment of trust in the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival production of The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher: Arcite (Connor Sullivan, above left) and Palamon (Rafael Goldstein) spy Emilia (Samantha Eggers, below left) in the garden with her attendant (Chloe Baldwin). Photo courtesy of Kingsmen Shakespeare Company.

Trust the play they did and earned a rewarding audience reaction. Now, on opening night, it is the audience reaping the rewards of a talented cast under the insightful direction of Elizabeth Swain delivering a poignantly funny, unrelentingly current rendering of this rarely staged tragicomedy. Not that it should be rarely staged, but other than the fact that it was not included in the First Folio (though that volume does include the Shakespeare-Fletcher collaboration of Henry VIII), The Two Noble Kinsmen is susceptible to being much maligned by those who first encounter it on the page rather than on the stage. When performed by skilled practitioners such as the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, based at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, what emerges from within the play's obtuse language and archaic set pieces is a depiction of human nature at its silliest. The Two Noble Kinsmen further explores the greatest universal truth prevailing through time from the prehistoric world through Medieval society and the Elizabethan enlightenment to #MeToo awareness: guys are such guys.

Ironically, while Shakespeare is the standout writer in collaborations earlier in his career (Henry VI, Titus Andronicus, Edward III, Sir Thomas More, probably Arden of Faversham, and even as late as Pericles, Prince of Tyre), at this point in Shakespeare's career, Fletcher is the playwright you need to trust. True, where Shakespeare's verse can be complex but incisive, Fletcher's tends to be convoluted and flighty, and his plots and character arcs get so ridiculously melodramatic they take the reader beyond head-shaking disbelief to slack-jawed paralysis. Summarizing the plot of a Fletcher play can inspire replies of, "You can't be serious." So, was Fletcher serious?

Therein lies the rub. The more I see Fletcher's works, the more I see a subtext of humorous human foibles within his scripts, coiled and ready to strike your funny bone when you least expect it. This can't be happenstance, for these moments are crafted in juxtaposition to counterpoint expressions of some grand concept, be it chivalry, honor, truth, unconditional love, chastity, or duty (this is in plays exploring incest, cannibalism, rape, suicide, or castration, by the way).

Here's The Two Noble Kinsmen's plot summary. Theseus, duke of Athens, is about to marry Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (yes, same scenario that frames A Midsummer Night's Dream), when three widow queens intervene. Their husbands led an army against Thebes, whose evil king, Creon, defeated them and refused burial rights for the kings, leaving their carcasses to rot on the battlefield. Theseus agrees to postpone his nuptials and take on Creon. He wins the war, allowing the queens to dispose of their husbands' bodies. In the battle, two noble kinsmen, Theban cousins Arcite and Palamon, are captured. Imprisoned, they catch a glimpse of Emilia, Hippolyta's sister, and fall so totally in love with her that they agree to fight to the death for the right to have her—never mind that they're shackled and jailed or that Emilia has no idea they even exist. Theseus releases Arcite to banishment, but he returns to Athens in disguise and wins a competition earning the right to become Emilia's servant. The Jailer's Daughter, who has a crush on Palamon, helps him escape, and in the Athenian woods he encounters Arcite. They agree to carry out their fight, Arcite helps Palamon out of his shackles, feeds him, and retrieves armor for him, but as they finally get down to real combat instead of trolling each other, Theseus and his court come upon them. Learning the gist of their argument, Theseus intends to execute both, but Hippolyta, Emilia, and Theseus's best friend Prithous intervene to spare their lives. Knowing that banishing the two kinsmen is useless as they'll fight and come back to stalk Emilia anyway, Theseus orders her to choose one for husband; the other he will execute. She can't choose, so Theseus decrees that each cousin recruit an army of knights to fight in a tournament: winning team wins Emilia for that cousin, the losing cousin and his entire team will lose their heads. Ceremonies ad nauseum ensue (the knights' entrances, the prayers of the principals to various gods) before Arcite wins the battle (offstage), but just as the executioner is about to chop off Palamon's head, word comes that Arcite was thrown by his horse and is on his deathbed (oops, sorry: spoiler alert). The cousins reconcile, Palamon ends up with Emilia, and the Jailor's Daughter, who has gone mad having been abandoned by Palamon in the woods, ends up, under doctor's orders, making love to her erstwhile suitor disguised as Palamon.

Yep, I'm serious. And this play is intensely serious through the five scenes of Act One and well into the second scene of Act Two. In that scene, the jailed Arcite (Connor Sullivan) and Palamon (Rafael Goldstein) express their undying devotion to each other and accept their state of imprisonment as a "holy sanctuary, to keep us from corruption of worse men." Emilia (Samantha Eggers) arrives in the garden with her attendant (Chloe Baldwin), Palamon sees her through the window, points her out to Arcite, and, after Emilia's departure, they wax eloquent on the paragon they've just seen. "Might not a man well lose himself and love her?" Palamon says, seeking understanding from his closest kin. "I cannot tell what you have done," replies Arcite; "I have, beshrew mine eyes for't; now I feel my shackles."

PALAMON: You love her then?
ARCITE: Who would not?
PALAMON: And desire her?
ARCITE: Before my liberty.

Goldstein pauses but a moment before saying: "I saw her first." That pause is just long enough to turn what had been about 20 minutes of Medievalized Greek tragedy into a bromcom of Judd Apatow proportions. It takes a deft cast to pull off such a shift, but credit for maintaining a serious undertone while letting comic moments come to the fore throughout the production goes to Swain.

Kingsmen Artistic Director Michael J. Arndt cofounded the festival in 1997 and stages two plays a year under the stars in Kingsmen Park, a wooded green space in the middle of the California Lutheran University campus. The performances are played on a large stage under the lighting rig brought over from the university's indoor theater adjacent to the park. Typical outdoor challenges come into play, and atypical ones, too: tiny frogs with big croakers living in the creek traversing the park, and cheerleaders with loud lungs attending camp on the campus. Acoustics, however, is not one of the challenges. A cone microphone above the stage invented by Kingsman Sound Technician Gary Raymond provides complete acoustic coverage for the estimated 400 people sitting on blankets and in lawn chairs on the ground sloping down toward the stage. No need for the actors to be individually miked. Unfortunately, the microphone also amplifies the frogs, but playwright Fletcher (ever aware of 21st century conditions, it seems) offered a brief respite when the Jailer's Daughter (Rachel Seiferth) complains of being hungry and then says, "Would I could find a fine frog; he would tell me news from all parts o'th'world." The frogs, hearing the juxtaposition of her hunger and desire to find a fine frog, immediately go silent and stay quiet for a few minutes before resuming broadcasting news from all parts of the creek.

Arndt chose to open the company's 22nd annual festival with The Two Noble Kinsmen (paired with Shakespeare's Othello) because he saw its relevance to the #MeToo movement. Thus, he determined, too, that a woman should direct it and chose Swain, a member of Los Angeles's Antaeus Company. Though she's directed many Shakespeare plays, her only experience with The Two Noble Kinsmen was seeing the 1986 Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford-Upon-Avon."So I have made some choices that I believe the text is telling me to make," she writes in her director's notes.

Key among them is presenting Emilia as a lesbian. This jibes with critics who cite Emilia's erotic description of her friendship with one Flavina (identified as lesbian in the ensuing text) when they were 11 years old. Many more critics, noting that this memory is part of her conversation with Hippolyta (Angela Gulner) about the Theseus (Ross Hellwig) and Pirithous (Jason D. Rennie) bromance, see Emilia as nostalgically describing a BFF. Such a reading would be in keeping with the play's overarching theme of same-sex friendship as the truest form of idealized love, exemplified (and challenged) to the extreme by the two noble kinsmen themselves. Nevertheless, this passage about Flavina, per the text, ends with Emilia hyperventilating, indicating that the relationship must have been more intense than pinky-hooking friendship. Hippolyta, in some alarm at Emilia's display of passion, worries that her sister "shall never, like the maid Flavina, love any that's called man." "I am sure I shall not," Emilia replies, to which Hippolyta is thankful she is not of her "persuasion," Gulner pausing to come up with an appropriate word for sexual orientation.

Critics can debate the real meaning of that scene, but Swain goes beyond this passage to Emilia's conversation with her attendant in the garden. After their obtuse, playful volleying about flowers and maids (though Emilia's comment, "Men are mad things," is clear enough), the exit lines certainly sound like a promised assignation.

EMILIA: I am wondrous merry-hearted; I could laugh now.
WOMAN: I could lie down, I am sure.
EMILIA: And take one with you?
WOMAN: That's as we bargain, madam.
EMILIA: Well, agree then. Exeunt Emilia and Woman.

The amount of flirting that Eggers and Baldwin bring to this dialogue leaves no question of what's coming next in their day. This point has an echo later after Arcite, after winning the tournament, is bestowed upon Emilia: Baldwin glares in jealousy. Though the disguised Arcite is at this point only an attendant to Emilia, Theseus tells Emilia (Hellwig using a wink-wink, nudge-nudge tone), "Sister, beshrew my heart, you have a servant that, if I were a woman, would be master. But you are wise." Emilia's answer is instructive: "I hope, too wise for that, sir," and Gulner's Hippolyta gestures her knowledge of her sister's "persuasion."

What makes Swain's reading of these scenes so keen is how they enlarge the thematic juxtapositions Fletcher employs (scholars assign these scenes to him). Palamon and Arcite express their idealized male friendship—"Were we at liberty, a wife might part us lawfully," Arcite says—then watch through their cell's window as Emilia and her attendant shamelessly flirt with each, and then proclaim in the tritest terms their fervent love for this woman and their willingness to kill each other or die for her. Where's the duh! fellas?

Down this silly yet ultimately tragic road the kinsmen go, dragging along not just Emilia, but Theseus, too. Swain has cast accomplished actors able to breathe life into even the most formal of verses and formulaic codes of behavior. Hellwig gives an intelligently off-kilter reading of Theseus as a well-meaning ruler knocked about by one conundrum after another, confounded by the conflicts between common sense and the chivalric code he lives by. Goldstein and Sullivan anchor the play as the titular kinsmen, combining the easy casualness of their friendship with strict adherence to chivalric code. Their conduct may seem off-the-chart stupid, but Sullivan and Goldstein give these guys such charm and earnestness you can’t help liking them. Lost in all the ensuing illogic is that Emilia has no interest in either guy, but she doesn't want them killed, either. Even her sister denies Emilia her own voice. This fuels the production's most haunting line delivery when the victorious Arcite mourns the imminent death of his friend (who he was eager to kill earlier) with "Emilia, to buy you, I have lost what's dearest to me, save what is bought; and yet I purchase cheaply, as I do rate your value." Eggers' Emilia looks at him in disbelief and cries out "Is this winning?" The line even earns a laugh, not because Eggers is being funny here but because she's the only one who sees the stupidity of it all.

Scholarship credits Shakespeare with the opening three scenes and much of the final act (he also wrote Act Three, Scene One, the first meeting of Arcite and the shackled Palamon in the woods, which Sullivan and Goldstein turn into comic gold as they snipe at each other while the impaired Palamon is forced by his chained ankle bracelets to walk in ministeps; his only weapon is to hop and land on Arcite's foot with both of his). Shakespeare's first act could easily lose the audience with its archaic structure, but Swain makes these scenes intensely dramatic by emphasizing their formality. Scenic Designer Andrea Heilman's set features arches and columns in ruins, with vines of flowers trailing down the columsn and moss hanging on the walls. Costume Designer Carolyn Mazuca dresses the cast in mythological Greek costumes, except the three widowed queens. The wedding party engages in a formal dance, and as Theseus is ready to proceed to the temple, the three queens suddenly appear in a burst of unearthly noise like Weird Sisters on a heath but wearing royal Renaissance dresses.

Production photo of Morris dancers twirling handkerchiefs performing for Theseus's royal party watching on the ledge above.
The Morris dancers perform for Theseus and his royal party in the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival's production of The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. The Jailer's Daughter (Rachel Seiferth) is second from the lower left in the red scarf dancing in front of the Schoolmaster (Jason McBeth). Photo courtesy of Kingsmen Shakespeare Company.

The war won, the queens depart with stiff formality on the line "This world's a city full of straying streets, and death's the market-place where each one meets," and the play relaxes as we meet the Jailer (Matt Orduña), his daughter, and her Wooer (Will Block). This prison scene launches the play's comic strand as described above, but it also launches the Jailer's Daughter subplot, featuring one of the great female roles in the Shakespeare canon though Fletcher is credited with writing these scenes. Seiferth manages her arc with a tender balance of humor and pathos. She encounters a band of Morris dancers (dressed as 16th century English peasants) and fills in for a missing dancer in their performance for Theseus. The resulting chaos she causes is touching as well as slapstick as she ends up merely watching and imitating the Schoolmaster (Jason McBeth) conducting the dancers. Fitting, too, that when the Schoolmaster, whom McBeth plays as the offspring of Bottom and Quince from A Midsummer Night's Dream, ends on a vulgar scrotum joke using the money bags Theseus gives him, Seiferth's Jailer's Daughter is the only one who laughs in keeping with her own insanity-induced skanky behavior (shades of Ophelia in that).

This plot's final scene pushes the tragicomedy envelope to bursting. That the Wooer must dress and do up his hair in a man bun to look like Palamon and make love to the Jailer's Daughter as medicine for her insanity would be creepy except that Block's Wooer isn't too happy about it, either. He's obviously moved to it by his unconditional love for the Jailer's Daughter as he is fully aware and bothered that she thinks she's making love to Palamon. The scene is comic in how the Doctor (Michael Faulkner) coaches the Wooer and converses with the oblivious Jailer's Daughter, and when the Wooer encourages her to go into dinner and then play cards, she suggests that they will sleep together, too. "Take her offer," the Doctor says, and the Wooer does.

DAUGHTER: But you shall not hurt me.
WOOER: I will not, sweet.
DAUGHTER: If you do, love, I'll cry.

When acted well, this line always gets me, and Seiferth combines confidence and vulnerability in the expression behind her delivery. We see her confidence level from the moment we meet her—"It is a holiday to look on them," she says to her father when he admonishes her for pointing at the jailed Arcite and Palamon—and despite her fear and confusion in the woods, she never wavers in that confidence. Her true state, however, is vulnerability, in her mental condition, in the reality she has suffered since first seeing Palamon, and in the fact that she's a disenfranchised woman.

I'm intrigued by how Fletcher ends this particular plotline of the play on that simple, direct, and enigmatic line spoken by the Jailer's Daughter before turning the rest of Act Five back over to Shakespeare. Emilia speaks a three-line obsequy to the dead Arcite, but otherwise, true to his habit in many of his plays, Shakespeare keeps the women, Emilia and Hippolyta, silent in the final scene. It's a man's world, after all, a true tragicomedy.

Eric Minton
May 9, 2019

Post-Production Note

One of many highlights on my Shakespeare Canon Project adventures in 2018 was my visit with the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company and seeing The Two Noble Kinsmen on successive nights. I interviewed several company members and California Lutheran University President Chris Kimball, and my wife, Sarah, and I attended the opening night party featuring homemade sushi by the company's executive director, Timothy Hengst. It was among the warmest community welcomes we received on last year's journeys.

Four months later, two tragedies rocked the Thousand Oaks community in one week: the November 7 shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill that killed 12, and the November 8 Woolsey Wildfire that within 24 hours was bearing down on Thousand Oaks, coming within a mile of Hengst's house and causing smoke damage to Artistic Director Michael J. Arndt's home. Before it was extinguished, the fire killed four and destroyed more than 1,600 structures across the region.

Among those slain at the Borderline shooting was Justin Meek, who had just graduated from California Lutheran in May. I did not meet him on my two-day visit, but based on the testimonies of people in the community, including President Kimball who spoke at Meek's memorial service, that I didn't meet him would have been unusual. Meek was universally loved, and the college and community took the loss hard. Having experienced so much warmth there myself, I feel their pain.

I dedicate this posting to Justin Meek and the California Lutheran University community. Your community spirit is what makes you strong.

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