David Harbour and Graham Hamiltonin The Two Noble Kinsmen(Photo © Michal Daniel)
David Harbour and Graham Hamilton
in The Two Noble Kinsmen
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Why is this play so rarely performed? That's what I -- and, I'll bet, a large portion of the appreciative audience -- wanted to know after seeing the Public Theater's first production of the season, The Two Noble Kinsmen. Perhaps the play has been neglected because of its dubious authorship, though most scholars seem to accept that it was, as the Public bills it, written by both John Fletcher and one Mr. William Shakespeare. In fact, the Bard's fingerprints are all over this one; it's almost as if the rest of the Shakespearean canon had exploded and this was the result.

The play begins with A Midsummer Night's Dream's Theseus and Hippolyta preparing to wed, but the nuptials are soon interrupted when three elderly, widowed queens reminiscent of Macbeth's witches arrive and convince Theseus, an Athenian duke, to go to war against Thebes. Meanwhile, Theban princes Arcite and Palamon have decided to abandon their morally decadent city; however, upon hearing the news that Theseus is to war with Thebes, they decide instead to serve their country despite their feelings. Promptly, the two noble kinsmen are captured in battle by Theseus. All of this war business gives Kinsmen the feeling of one of Shakespeare's more historically minded plays; the Athenian setting makes one think of Troilus and Cressida. But no, it quickly becomes a comedy when the two friends, from their jail cell, fall madly in love with Theseus's daughter Emilia and fight over her like a couple of hot-headed teenagers. Yet the comedy doesn't last: The plot eventually reveals tragic elements that include a crazy lady to rival Ophelia.

A lesser director may have been flummoxed by the play's tonal challenges, but Darko Tresjnak handles them with ease. Perhaps he recognizes this play for what it is, a kind of dark comedy that translates exceedingly well for present-day theatergoers who will likely find Kinsmen more realistic than your average Shakespeare play because it doesn't wrap everything up neatly as does As You Like It, with the lovers all happily paired up, or Hamlet, with everyone conveniently dead. When all is said and done, this is really just a play about two guys who want the same girl.

Between Fletcher and Shakespeare, I don't know who wrote what -- and, by the way, the whole thing is based on Chaucer's The Knight's Tale. Yet there's no doubt that Shakespeare's brilliance echoes throughout the play. There are moments of great lyricism and poignancy but the humor makes a particular impression, maybe because it has such a contemporary ring. Note this exchange between Palamon and Arcite when they first see Emilia:

PALAMON: You love her then?
ARCITE: Who would not?
PALAMON: And desire her?
ARCITE: Before my liberty.
PALAMON: I saw her first.
ARCITE: That's nothing.
PALAMON: But it shall be.
ARCITE: I saw her too.
PALAMON: Yes, but you must not love her.

The play really gets going at this point as the men pursue Emilia. Palamon and Arcite are played, respectively, by newcomer Graham Hamilton (in a smashing professional debut) and David Harbour (one of the the New York theater's finest). These two skillfully make the emotional transition from quarreling boys to honor-bound men who are willing to kill for the woman they love, or think they love. They are ably supported by an all-around fine cast -- particularly Jennifer Ikeda as a young woman who falls for Palamon, Liam Craig as her kindly suitor, and Jonathan Fried as her concerned father.

Tresjnak lets the action play out in staging that is elegant and majestic, yet simple. He guides the show with a sure but never heavy hand and lets the excellent cast carry the production; but he does offer a number of wonderful directorial touches, from the chilling moment in which Palamon, Arcite, and Emilia offer prayers to the gods to his smart, shadow-play staging of an important fight between the two men.

Scenic designer David P. Gordon, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, costume designer Linda Cho, sound designer Michael Creason, and fight director Deeann Weir all play an important part in realizing Tresjnak's vision. This production of The Two Noble Kinsmen is haunting, funny, thrilling, and sad. Hopefully, it will inspire more directors to tackle this fascinating play in the future.