Saturday, September 26, 2009

Saturday Afternoon in Hudson River Park: A Reading of "Two Noble Kinsmen" at Clinton Cove

This afternoon we had the pleasure of going to Hudson River Park's Clinton Cove, a beautiful spot on the river at 55th Street, and watching a staged reading of Two Noble Kinsmen, the tragicomedy written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

The only one of Shakespeare's works never produced for movies or TV - the Public Theater's New York Shakespeare Festival has put it on only once, in 2003 - The Two Noble Kinsmen is, at least in Elena Araoz’s and Nate Art Productions adaptation that we heard today, actually surprisingly entertaining and resonant.

Scholars using textual analysis generally can pinpoint which parts of the play are Shakespeare's and which are Fletcher's, with some passages uncertain. But it's almost universally believed that Shakespeare did co-author about 40% of The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Even to our untrained ears some of the language is unmistakeable. We've never read the play, but at the end of the excellent reading, presented by a really talented cast of seven actors (three males, two females) in a somewhat abridged version, we felt a catch in our throat at the play's conclusion when Theseus, king of Athens, says
O you heavenly charmers
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh; for what we have are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let's go off,
And bear us like the time.

We weren't surprised to read when we got home that Harold Bloom called these "as far as we know, the last lines of serious poetry Shakespeare ever wrote."

Here's the plot summary, courtesy of the Shakespeare Rescource Center:
The Two Noble Kinsmen is essentially an adaptation of Chaucer's Knight's Tale. In this story, the two kinsmen are Palamon and Arcite; they are captured while fighting for Thebes against Athens. While imprisoned, the two cousins find themselves attracted to Emilia, who is the sister of Hippolyta, wife of Theseus. Their professed "eternal friendship" takes a beating as the two vow to woo her. Theseus exiles Arcite from Athens and leaves Palamon in jail.

Arcite has other ideas once he is freed; he disguises himself as a peasant in order to keep an eye on Emilia. Meanwhile, the jailer's daughter has fallen in love with Palamon. She helps him to escape and aids him once he's hiding in the nearby forest. There Arcite encounters him. The two men resume their argument over Emilia and finally decide to duel for her that night. However, as they prepare for the duel, the two are discovered by Theseus. At first he condemns both to death; at the behest of Emilia and Hippolyta, however, the duke attempts to banish them both. Both Palamon and Arcite refuse, so Theseus asks Emilia to choose between them, with the loser being put to death. Emilia, however, can't decide, so Theseus declares that the matter will be settled by combat after all—in one month, Palamon and Arcite will fight for Emilia's hand, with the loser to be executed.

In the meantime, the jailer's daughter has gone mad as a result of her unrequited love for Palamon. Theseus absolves the jailer, who had no part in Palamon's escape, and gives a pardon to his deranged daughter. A doctor attempts to help her by getting the man to whom she's engaged pretend to be Palamon in order to restore her sanity. The time for the contest comes about, and Arcite defeats Palamon. However, fate twists dramatically as Palamon awaits execution; a messenger arrives bringing news of Arcite's mortal wounding suffered in a horse riding accident. Arcite gives Emilia's hand to Palamon before he dies.

The cast - James Edward Becton, Donte Bonner, Alexandra Cremer, Joseph Franchini, Jenny Greeman, Carrie Isaacman, Jonathan Periera, and Paul Singleton - were uniformly excellent in playing multiple parts. They employed the bound scripts in a manner that soon we didn't notice them much and instead concentrated on the words, the actor's line readings, and some physical gestures.

Stage directions were read by the actors taking turns, and we never had a problem distinguishing when an actor was playing one part and when another. Given that they were wearing their regular clothes, this was quite an accomplishment.

An audience of maybe a dozen, including a couple of little blond kids who were amazingly well-behaved, sat on the grass in front of the actors. It was kind of a shame that this reading didn't have more people to appreciate it, but maybe the crowd was larger last Saturday.

We did see a couple of joggers or strollers in the path behind stop to listen and watch for a scene or two. Clinton Cove, by piers 95 and 96, is a pleasant setting, and the ambient noise was minimal; we kind of liked the few times a ship's horn bellowed.

It couldn't have been easy to turn pages deftly on a cool, breezy early fall afternoon - it started out overcast but then became somewhat brighter - but the cast managed to do this unobtrusively, and the one time an actor read another's lines, it was handled gracefully.

Really, we were impressed with how well Two Noble Kinsmen worked in this format. This reading smartly emphasized the comic aspects of the play - the scenes with the love-mad jailer's daughter and the doctor's plot to disguise her anxious suitor as her beloved Palamon were laugh-out-loud funny and bawdy - and we suspect the cutting in this adaptation was a mercy.

We didn't have a cast list, but we think that it was Becton and Bonner who were the two kinsmen of the title, and they were excellent. But so was everyone else, even when playing such distinct roles as both Hippolyta and the Doctor or both Theseus and the Wooer of the Jailer's Daughter.

This reading was so good, it makes us wonder why The Two Noble Kinsmen hasn't been produced more. The tragicomedy has echoes of A Midsummer Night's Dream (where Theseus and Hippolyta also appear) and other Shakespeare plays. Anyway, we're really grateful to the Friends of Hudson River Park, the actors, and everyone responsible for this afternoon's event.

Afterwards we walked around Clinton Cove a bit.

We especially liked the sculpture Private Passage by Malcolm Cochran. a 30-foot long, 8’6” diameter wine bottle resting on its side.
was It was our first time visiting Clinton Cove, but it won't be our last.

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