The African-American Shakespeare Company is providing the opportunity to see one of the more obscure ventures of the Bard, Two Noble Kinsmen, at the African-American Art & Culture Complex, on Fulton Street in San Francisco, through this weekend.
The authorship of the play has long been questioned. Director David Skillman asks, “Did Shakespeare write it? Or did he and John Fletcher write it? Or did John Fletcher write by himself?” In recent years, there has been a more general acceptance of Shakespeare’s participation, even possibly sole creation, of this strange, scrappy excursion into the popular entertainments of Elizabethan and Jacobean times. It is the predecessor of soap opera, but with a message.
Skillman notes that this tale of “love, honor and fate,” in which the efforts of the characters “are impeded by events unseen and unpredicted,” raises “very relevant issues of friendship and love in the form of three relationships.” It hasn’t been produced in the Bay Area for more than 20 years.
He has staged this baroque tale set in ancient Thebes in a contemporary style ... in fact, in the neighborhood. The two kinsmen of the title, Palamon (Norman Gee) and Arcite (Austin Ku), are security personel (“Prince Security” on bill caps and jacket backs) at housing projects in San Francisco.
Kings and princes become local politicos and their factotums include a reverend. News broadcasts barge in between scenes of protests of love and honor.
“I have certainly taken liberties with the story,” says Skillman. “Gone are Moorish dancers, gorillas ... and a whole host of other characters ... I streamlined the story ... by merging multiple characters into one so as to create community continuity.”
The mood teeters back and forth between melodrama and burlesque, with the two kinsmen split over the rights to the love of Emilia (Camelia Poespowidjojo.) They’ve seen her from within the prison where they’re shackled after an uprising in Thebes.
Skillman’s cast is, for the most part, young and energetic, and at their playful best when playing. Many of the best moments are those between the kinsmen, antagonists alternately expressing mutual love or hate (or both at the same time). Austin Ku’s Arcite is a case in point: his competent portrayal of the banished lovelorn who sneaks back into Thebes becomes real playing when he’s hilariously disguised as a poet in Afro wig and sparkly glasses, in what amounts to a slam for Emilia’s affections. Sometimes a more vigorous staging would help support these enjoyable farcical turns. John Ford, the film director, once told an actor who couldn’t find a demeanor of gravity for melodrama, “then play it for laughs.”
And there are laughs among the impossible twists and turns of plot, enhanced by Skillman’s deliberate anachronisms. Reviving these old plays is like touring an exhibition of perpetual motion machines, Rube Goldberg-like devices whose engines of word and incident lumber along fantastically, backfiring and acting up like the hot-rodding cars the director’s interpolated into the action.
Allegorical commonplaces of baroque speech radiate from cliffhanging situations:
“I am very cold, and all the stars are out, too,” says the jailer’s daughter (Dawn L. Brown), in love with Palamon, her father’s prisoner. She chases him into the woods when he escapes. “The sun has seen my folly ... All the little stars that look like agates.”
After many twists and turns, the end is sudden and ironic, barely providing a friction brake for a speed stop to the racing plot, piling up catastrophes.
This community troupe has taken an unusual play as a project, and tried putting it on in a different style. The results are mixed, but even the most tentative triumphs of contemporary performers voicing lines, such as Hippolyta (Sheylon Haywood) and Emilia’s exchange on the Narcissus myth: “Were there not maids enough? ... Men are mad things” or the kinsmen, arguing politely while eating Krispy Kremes: “Be rough with me; pour this oil off of your language” should give heart to this and other adventurous companies to try one of these seldom-done plays and “make it new.”
African-American Shakespeare Company presents Two Noble Kinsmen through Oct. 23 at African-American Art & Culture Complex, Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco. For more information, see www.african-americanshakes.org.