No-frills Bard, just like 400 years ago

Eleanor Handley plays Emilia, who cannot choose between cousins who have fallen for her.
Eleanor Handley plays Emilia, who cannot choose between cousins who have fallen for her. (LEE A. BUTZ)
Posted: July 30, 2011

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. - Nobody had a makeup artist in the Elizabethan theater, or a lighting designer, choreographer, or even a director.

Or a publicist - although Patrick Mulcahy, the head of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, has been doing a pretty good job spiriting audiences to the production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a seldom-produced Shakespeare-John Fletcher collaboration the festival is staging as if it had just been written.

"The actors are doing it more or less under the same circumstances they would have experienced 400 years ago," Mulcahy told the audience in a curtain speech, explaining just what that means: five days of rehearsal as opposed to the usual almost-a-month that's standard at the festival; no designers; no director. You learn it, you block out the movements on stage, you open it.

Shakespeare might laugh at today's legion of stagecraft artists and the mighty bureaucratic machine that keep a theater company in motion - but he'd also probably marvel at how those elements burnish a production. Still, there's no doubt that audiences at this year's festival, at DeSales University near Bethlehem, are getting a big bonus with The Two Noble Kinsmen.

First, it's an add-on mainstage show, meaning five major productions this year rather than the usual four. Second, it matches the high level of staging and thought festival audiences have come to expect, so as a moderately risky experiment, it works.

Not everything about The Two Noble Kinsmen is exactly as it was in Elizabethan times. There was a preview performance before Thursday's opening night, which was hardly standard practice back then, and the festival hired a stage manager for the actors - which would give some historians pause.

But these are trifles; the 14 actors came in last week with their lines memorized and immediately worked with speed and intensity, and they've come up with a Kinsmen that's noble itself - stylishly funny, with smart character interpretations and a spirit that says, yes, if they could do this then, we can do it now.

I'd venture that if you didn't know the circumstances - the actors had to scout the festival's collection of used costumes and appropriate scenery from earlier shows this season, in addition to throwing together the staging - you wouldn't have guessed that the production had a Hey! Let's put on a show! provenance.

So here's to the brave actors, all of them, and particularly Spencer Plachy and Thomas Matthew Kelley as the two noble cousins pulled by both their love for each other and their love of the same woman, played by Eleanor Handley. The cast not only puts on a Shakespeare not typically performed (and more's the pity for that, the Bard might protest), but also makes it memorable. From scratch.


The Two Noble Kinsmen

Presented by the Pennnsylvania Shakespeare Festival at DeSales University, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, through Aug. 7. Tickets: $30 and $32. Information: 610-282-9455 or www.pashakespeare.org.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.

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