The question of the authorship of The Two Noble Kinsmen has cast something of a pall over it as a work of theatre. Regardless of how much was penned by William Shakespeare and how much by John Fletcher, it has never received the respect, in terms of admiration or production, that the majority of Shakespeare's other plays have enjoyed. But does it really matter who wrote it?
Of course it does, and that's demonstrated in every aspect of the shiny and silky new production of it at the Public Theater. As the play itself is mostly second-rate and unimaginative, you can't blame director Darko Tresnjak for wanting to camouflage its flaws and mostly unimpressive writing with some of the same techniques contemporary directors utilize to make Shakespeare fresh and relevant to today's audiences. (This, more than anything else, seems to suggest faith in Shakespeare's hand in the writing; how many would bother for most of Fletcher's plays?)
Fervently employing masks, shadow play, and other unexpected staging ideas, Tresnjak keeps The Two Noble Kinsmen visually varied and appealing throughout. David P. Gordon's streamlined triangle-laced set (more complicated than it first appears), Linda Cho's attractive and suggestively Greek costumes, and Robert Wierzel's inventive lights all help Tresnjak establish his past-clashes-with-present mood, though sound designer Michael Creason occasionally overplays his hand (or maybe just the volume controls).
Tresnjak and his creative team have unquestionably succeeded, making the production a shimmering example of style triumphing material. Like many of Shakespeare's late works, this play is not easily quantifiable as a comedy or a drama, giving it a somewhat murky feeling, and making its adaptation of Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" seem dispirited at best. It also makes this one of the rare cases where the original source material is better known and loved than Shakespeare's adaptation of it; that's no coincidence.
The story here, as there, details the travails of two cousins (Arcite and Palamon) who, while imprisoned for attacking the Athenian Duke Theseus, spy Emilia, the sister of Theseus's bride and immediately fall in love with her. This leads to a lengthy and often violent confrontation between the two, previously as close as two men could be in the grand Romantic tradition. While there is a subplot of the daughter involving the jailer's daughter and her unrequited love for Palamon (that eventually drives her mad, naturally), the story twists and turns as the two men vie for (and occasionally win) Emilia's eye.
The performers, in keeping with Tresnjak's directives, bring a great deal of modern verve to their characters. This occasionally makes the production feel like any of a number of TV shows that have dealt with a very similar plot, complete with attractive, energetic, and youthful players in the central roles who unwittingly add triviality to an already trivial subject. This is not to impugn their talents, however, as David Harbour and Graham Hamilton as Arcite and Palamon and Doan Ly as Emilia all give excellent, colored portrayals of their characters. And Jennifer Ikeda, supplely portraying the jailer's daughter, threatens to steal the show with her portrayal here much the way she almost walked away with As You Like It (in this same theater) this past spring.
But supplying the play as he does with numerous moments both simple (the cousins' confrontations) and grand (the Gods bestowing their blessings prior to the last of the cousins' conflicts), Tresnjak provides serious competition, and even protection, for the performers. His intercession between the actors and the audience and the text itself allows him to give The Two Noble Kinsmen the brightly burnished appearance of a time-tested classic that, regardless of authorship, it does not have on the page.