Don't even ask about the convoluted plot. Basically there are two guys, Arcite (Chris Anthony) and Palamon (the excellent Dan McGlaughlin), who are royal cousins captured and imprisoned in Athens by Duke Theseus, who has waged war against their tyrannical uncle Creon, king of Thebes.
Both so handsome that "it is a holiday to look on them," they have pledged total friendship to each other - a bromance played for laughs.
But then, one fateful day, peering from their prison window, they see a beautiful woman, Emilia (Laura Betz), and the dialogue goes like this:
Arcite: Now I feel my shackles.
Palamon: I saw her first.
There ensues a kind of playground fight that will later become a fatal battle; tonally the play makes sudden swerves into comedy and into tragedy. The Jailer's Daughter (Portland Thomas) goes mad with love for Palamon, but she's a funny crazy, and her father (Sam Sherburne) seems both genuinely distraught and cartoonishly ridiculous. Outstanding among the cast, who double and triple roles, is Maryruth Stine as a kind of Jewish Jacobean psychiatrist.
Director Aaron Cromie has walked that smart, fine line between rigorous classicism and contemporary fun: Two noble dudes fist-bump and reminisce about wenches, while the company provides great fights (combat choreography by Michael Cosenza) and wild dances. The costumes are contemporary clothes, and there is no set to speak of: This is no-frills theater-making with energy and gusto.
This is my summer of rare Shakespeare; I'll be seeing the Henry VI trilogy (all in one day!) at the Globe in London - stay tuned for that review on inquirer.com/phillystage in late August.
The Two Noble Kinsmen
Through Aug. 18 at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2011 Sansom St. Free.
215-496-8001 or www.philyshakespeare.org.