Saturday, July 4, 2015

Shakespeare, in the original recipe

Fourteen actors are putting on "Two Noble Kinsmen" at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival the way it would have been staged in Shakespeare's time: They get no director, find their own costumes and sets, and have just five days to do it before opening. And it turns out to be a polished show.

Shakespeare, in the original recipe


By Howard Shapiro
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, which the festival is staging as if Shakespeare had just written it.

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

Shakespeare may laugh today at the legion of stagecraft artists and the bureaucratic machine that keeps a theater company in motion — but he’d also probably marvel at the polish that all those elements rub on a production. Still, there’s no doubt that audiences at this year’s festival, at DeSales University near Bethlehem, are getting a big bonus.

First, they’re getting an additional mainstage show. Instead of the four major productions normal for the festival, this year the festival stages five — The Two Noble Kinsmen is an add-on. Second, it rises to the high level of staging and thought that audiences have come to expect from the festival, so as a moderately risky experiment, it works.

Not everything about The Two Noble Kinsmen is exactly as it was in Elizabethan times. The show had a preview performance before Thursday’s official opening night, which was hardly standard Elizabethan practice, and the festival hired a stage manager for the actors — a fulltime position that 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 it 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 its 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 their love for each other and for their love of the same woman, played Eleanor Handley. The cast not only puts on a Shakespeare that’s not typically performed (and more’s the pity for that, the Bard might protest), but makes it memorable. From scratch.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or

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<NO1>cq<NO> or<NO1>cq<NO>.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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