"Cherchez la femme" is the take-away from the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival’s production of "Two Noble Kinsmen." The phrase, which translates as "look for the woman (as the cause)," describes the experiences of two noble cousins whose friendship is destroyed when they fall in love with the same woman.
The play is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, in part because researchers disagree over how much of it he wrote. Judging from the sparse turnout for opening night, it seems destined to remain so here.
Nicholas Atiburcio (Palamon) and Ryan Sutherlan (Arcite) star as the kinsmen who leave Thebes to do their duty on the battlefield and end up imprisoned in Athens — perhaps for life. Just as the two men agree that life in a prison cell with each other is preferable to any other existence, Palamon looks out the window, sees Princess Emilia of Athens and instantly recalibrates his sentiments.
The moment Arcite sees Emilia, he wants her, too.
‘TWO NOBLE KINSMEN’
» Where: The ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave.
» When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 3:30 p.m. Sunday
» Cost: $10 Wednesday, $15 Thursday and Sunday, $20 Friday and Saturday
» Info: 800-838-3006 or www.HawaiiShakes.org
Arcite is ransomed and allowed to leave Athens but sneaks back in disguise to pursue Emilia. Palamon is released by the jailer’s 15-year-old daughter, who wants him for herself. Palamon ditches her and slips away a fugitive determined to make Emilia his own.
The cousins’ love for each other remains so strong that Arcite helps Palamon recover from his ordeal even though it is understood they will eventually fight a duel to the death for Emilia’s hand.
The chemistry between Atiburcio and Sutherlan is the heart and soul of the production. From start to finish they deliver beautifully nuanced performances — and overcome the challenges posed by being restrained by chains and stripped down to 17th-century leather underpants with codpieces.
The third leg on which this production stands is festival veteran Katherine Aumer’s portrayal of the jailer’s daughter. Aumer gets so deeply into the character and gives such a touching albeit disturbing performance that anyone who doesn’t know the girl’s fate will be on pins and needles until the final scene.
Erin Chung (Emilia) brings a true-life feel to the scene where her character ponders which of the two noble kinsmen she will marry; the one she does not choose will be put to death. Jerry Altwies (Pirithous/Jailer) excels in the scene where the jailer protests a doctor’s suggestion that the best cure for his daughter is for her to lose her virginity.
The biggest problem with the show is that the cast is smaller than it should be. A three-person "Batterie" plays so many secondary characters of both genders that it is difficult at times to tell which is which. Even so, three members of the audience must be drafted for a scene in Act 2.
There is also an unnecessary distraction: The country people speak in anachronistic American "redneck" accents that are annoying rather than clever.