The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s Classical Acting Academy, developed by Artistic/Executive Director Carmen Khan, is an immersive eight-week program designed to give young professionals a thorough grounding in classical acting techniques and performances under the guidance of veteran directors, text and acting coaches, and combat instructors.
Judging by the CAA’s performance of The Two Noble Kinsmen, it’s incredibly effective.
By any standards, the cast has an impressive level of comfort with the text, one that blends well with both more naturalistic touches and some excellent physical comedy. Chris Anthony (Arcite) and Dan McGlaughlin (Palamon) carry the show as the eponymous kinsmen, seamlessly transitioning from their genuine if awkward affection for each other to a fierce and funny rivalry, while still allowing for the occasional moments of more serious contemplation or even remorse. Anthony’s Arcite is more soulful, investing all his emotions (no matter how potentially ludicrous) with a genuine core, while McGlaughlin gives Palamon a personality as deliberately over-the-top as his enshackled shenanigans and other entertaining moments of physical comedy. In a nice bit of contrast, Laura Betz’s Emilia and Tasha Milkman’s commanding Hippolyta have a very natural sisterly affection, for all that Betz is otherwise rather oddly (charmingly, but definitely oddly) sweet for a former Amazon. Likewise charming is Portland Thomas as the Jailer’s Daughter, whose wild eyes signal that her affections for Palamon were already a bit deranged before losing him in the woods. Thomas deftly brings out the humor in her bouts of madness even as she remains wholly sympathetic to both the other characters and the audience.
Director Aaron Cromie aimed for a “straight forward, no frills” production, and is fortuitously aided by designer Lisi Stoessel’s set, a simple structure with a few arched windows and doorways, recycled from the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Othello in the spring. The costumes by lighting/costume designer Rachel Sampley are uncomplicated, but not un-nuanced, modern dress. Higher-status characters get multiple wardrobe changes: the affluent Athenians switch from wedding finery to more everyday formal wear to high-class boots and hunting jackets, generally in shades of patriotic red, while the rise and fall of the fortunes of Arcite and Palamon can be traced through their succession of military uniforms, combat camouflage, prison orange, business-casual disguises, and stolen bedazzled fencing gear. Meanwhile, the Jailer sticks to his jumpsuit, his daughter to her practical button-down/skirt/leggings combo, and her wooer to his dorky sweater vest throughout the play, though the rude mechanicals do change from their sports jerseys and caps to their hilariously awful Morris dancing costumes. Overall the production’s costumes are perfectly serviceable, with a few clever details, like Arcite’s successful deployment of a pair of Clark Kent glasses to conceal his secret identity, or Emilia’s floral dresses, a reference to her love of flowers and the play’s frequent symbolic allusions to them.
Cromie emphasizes the comedic angle of this tragicomedy, supplemented not only by the very funny cast but also by several metatextual jokes: the pictures Emilia studies in Act IV, Scene 2 are the actors’ headshots; the Jailer’s Daughter scribbles “MRS. NOBLE KINSMAN” over her childish drawings; Hippolyta takes a brief foray into the world of The Hunger Games by announcing “May the gods be ever in your favor” before Arcite and Palamon begin their mortal combat. He also includes a number of gags that build to ever-greater heights of drollery — Arcite and Palamon’s amusingly complicated secret handshake gets nonchalantly redeployed so often it even catches the eye of the jovially capricious Theseus (Taylor Darden), and the hardcore sports fans that compose this play’s rude mechanicals reappear for their Morris dancing rehearsal as regretful and hungover hardcore sports fans who suddenly regain their enthusiasm as soon as the famous Elizabethan melody C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” blares forth from their boombox.
However, Cromie has a harder time negotiating the play’s non-humorous themes. The unfairness of Emilia’s position — trapped in a matrimonial dilemma which runs directly counter to her stated wishes to remain single as well as her Amazonian upbringing — is almost glossed over, an omission more glaring given the apparently modern setting and its consequently less oppressive gender norms. Another issue is caused by textual editing, though for the majority of the play the emendations are appropriate and barely noticeable. However, in Act V the absence of Palamon’s knights (a reasonable exclusion given the limited cast) combined with a severe editing of Theseus’ final speeches and the inexplicable cutting of Palamon’s final lines wreaks havoc with the pacing and resolution. The already rapid changes of fortune awaiting Palamon — his imminent execution stayed, his cousin fatally wounded, his desired match achieved — are compressed even further, and the result is a case of emotional whiplash with a frustrating lack of catharsis. This stumble at the finish line does not negate the quality of the rest of the production, but it keeps it from being completely satisfying.
In keeping with the actors’ education in classical theater, the production ends traditionally with the cast performing a dance; less traditionally, it’s to a reprise of “Everybody Dance Now,” an allusion to the earlier Morris Dance that is as significant as it is hilarious. The Two Noble Kinsmen, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream before it, features a group of performers aspiring to new heights of artistic achievement (with limited success, leading to some worrying conclusions about the state of the performing arts in ancient Athens). The actors who portray these characters with such verve, however, have risen to their new challenges, and the Classical Acting Academy’s The Two Noble Kinsmen is successful not only as a first effort, but also as a fine example of classical theater.