Aaron Cromie, the director of Philadelphia Shakespeare Company’s academy performance of TWO NOBLE KINSMEN, is one of this city’s best directors. His puppet/live actor version of Moliere’s Scapin at the Lantern was one of the best shows Philadelphia has seen in recent years. He brought the same eloquent choreography to last season’s American Sligo (New City Stage) and Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them (Theatre Confetti), and his appreciation of space, movement, and timing is evident too in KINSMEN.
But the last show he directed for Philly Shakes—Titus Andronicus—was memorably flawed. Handling another rarely produced Bard play, Cromie trivialized the violence of Shakespeare’s 16th-century Reservoir Dogs, robbing the work of its drama, tension, and depth. His was an entertaining but empty production of a piece understandably among the great playwright’s most popular during his lifetime. Cromie’s KINSMEN is much less problematic, but contains similar pitfalls.
An adaptation of Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” (hello canon! Harold Bloom must wet himself thinking about this) KINSMEN is perhaps Shakespeare’s final work. It is jointly written with John Fletcher, who succeeded Shakespeare as his company’s resident playwright. The Bard’s contributions consist mainly of long contemplative speeches, their language is rich but they do little to drive the curious plot (two noble kinsmen fall for the same woman and a jailer’s daughter goes mad).
Cromie has done a commendable job in shaping the difficult text into a coherent and appealing story, cutting extensively, keeping a frenetic pace, and pulling some fine comedic performances from the uneven but mostly high-quality cast of early career actors. In the lead roles Dan McGlaughlin brings a modern sensibility and humor to his Palamon, Laura Betz communicates the strength-despite-powerlessness of her Emilie. Presented with challenging material, Cromie and his cast have produced an easy-to-watch KINSMEN, with familiar characters and a neat plot.
But they aren’t a dozen or so Shakespeare plays a year on Philly stages because his plots are neat (they often aren’t, or they’re too “neat”). We love this great writer for his language and the piercing insight it conveys. Focusing on entertaining within the thin plotline, Cromie strips the script of much of its rich language. KINSMEN culminates in a (offstage) duel between the two knights for the hand of Emelie, preceded by long poetic prayers from the three characters. Palamon’s entreaty to Venus, god of love—the Bard at his most cynical and sharp (“Hail, sovereign queen of secrets…/ that mayst force the king/ To be his subject’s vassal, and induce/ Stale gravity to dance”)—is reduced in this production to a few plot-relevant lines.
Like his young cast, Cromie is rich in potential and sure-footed in his quest to entertain. But sometimes it’s best to swap a couple dance numbers for a few lines of magic.