July 1, 2014 § Leave a Comment
Director/Playwright Aaron Posner is having his moment, and watching his wonderfully inventive production of Comedy of Errors at Cal Shakes it is easy to see why. Posner brings the same kind of surprise and delight to Errors that infuses his sold-out production of The Tempest (incorporating magic designed by Teller – of Penn & Teller fame) now playing at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard.
His production of Errors, featuring local favorite Danny Scheie and the brilliant Adrian Danzig of Chicago’s 500 Clown, has a virtuosic theatricality that is both clever and very entertaining.
Mistaken Identity, Loss, and Longing
Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, but it has the confident polish of the late romances (Winter’s Tale, Tempest and Cymbeline) and some surprising structural similarities. Based on the Roman playwright Plautus’ Twin Manaechmi, it is superficially a farce of mistaken identity when twins separated at birth, along with their also-separated-twin servants, coincidentally find themselves in the same place at the same time and are constantly confused with each other. Many contemporary productions have found some deeper resonances in the intensity of loss and longing expressed by the members of the play’s shattered family- which also includes a lost mother and father – although this is not Posner’s way.
His production, instead, finds it central energy in the sheer theatricality of a single actor playing both twins. Posner pushed this concept much further than is usual, however, by divorcing it from any attempt at realistic illusion and inviting us into the game.
Shakespeare’s play is carefully structured so that no twin appears onstage with his brother until the final scene – where the illusion is often accomplished with stand-ins. (This was the approach taken in last summer’s production at the Marin Shakespeare Festival, for example.) There is, however, a very clever scene early in the play when the twin servants (the Dromios) have a scene together, one visible on the outside of a door and the other hidden behind it. Posner’s inventiveness is on high display in this moment, because his “door” is an entirely transparent creation of mime and hilarious sound effects. Actor Danny Scheie jumps back and forth transforming from one twin into the other with little more than the adjustment of his hat and attitude.
Both Scheie and Danzig (as the Antipholus twins) deliver bravura performances of rapid fire changes, reaching their peak in the touching denouement when they play both reunited twins simultaneously. (No spoiler alert necessary – you have to SEE it to appreciate what they do!)
As the evening progresses we see other actors in the small ensemble of seven also making onstage transformations from one character into another in their multiple roles. Ron Campbell and Liam Vincent make the most of this when they find themselves trapped onstage as the merchants Angelo and Balthasar unable to change into the approaching Egeon and the Duke – which they are also playing. The priceless looks of blind panic on their faces were worth the price of admission alone, and the relief they felt when costumes conveniently appeared from the wings was palpable. The rubbery Patty Gallagher found an equally funny solution to her problem when one of her characters, the Courtesan, is sent to fetch another, the Abbess, as she just gamely stalled carrying out the instruction.
Is There an Award for Funniest Sound Design?
Beaver Bauer’s eclectic costumes were at once luxurious and comedic, and handily facilitated the extensive doubling of the supporting cast. Nina Ball’s brightly colored set was serviceable, but undistinguished. Lighting Designer David Cuthbert contributed much more, especially to defining the moments of suspended time, which made a special kind of sense of the soliloquies. The standout design of the evening, however, was Andre Pluess’ brilliant sound design – a work of comic genius.
The loss of this highly theatrical approach is that it rendered the two female leads, Nemuna Ceesay as Adriana and Tristan Cunningham as Luciana, relatively uninteresting. Because they were not changing characters, and were essentially one-dimensional personalities, they were left without much to do and their skills unexploited. The text was also not treated with any particular reverence, with some of the interpolated gags getting a bit cheap. (“My wife is shrewish.” “Funny, she doesn’t look shrewish.”)
All told, however, the big laughs and charming performances far outweigh any deficits. There is hardly a slow moment in the evening to catch one’s breath. This is an easy production to love. CalShakes’ Artistic Director, Jonathan Moscone, has been able to attract some of the top talent in the nation to the Bay Area, and we can only be thrilled that he talked Aaron Posner into returning!
September 5, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Not “The,” But Certainly “A,” Comedy of Errors
The Marin Shakespeare Company’s country-western version of Comedy of Errors, adapted and directed by Lesley Schisgall Currier and Robert Currier and set in “old-timey” Texas, is silly and slight, but despite it coming from a very different place than is my usual taste it was nonetheless filled with enough delights to keep me entertained and intrigued.
The Comedy of Errors is an outlier among Shakespeare’s comedies. Although “city” comedies were a popular genre in his time, this is Shakespeare’s one and only play in this less-character-driven style. Errors is an adaptation of a play by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus. It is thought by many – including Marin Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director Robert Currier – to be his earliest work. The widespread, but imho teleological, argument is that “early” equals “not very good.” The play is often performed, fast and loose, with plenty of buttressing. (In the late ’80s, in a version easily accessible online, The Flying Karamazov Brothers performed it as an extended juggling act.)
While disagreeing that the play lacks substance, even those of us that find hidden depth in the text accede that it is, fundamentally, a farce of mistaken identity. While I missed a serious exploration of family loss and reconciliation (“Ugh,” I can hear the directors say, “go watch Pericles!”), from the perspective of pure performance there is lots to see and discuss.
It Happened Like This…
The plot concerns a scattered family. Long ago, parents Aegeon and Aemilia suffered a shipwreck from which each managed to save an identical twin son and that son’s servant, “coincidentally” also a twin, but were parted from each other. Separately, they each managed to see their charges raised to adulthood, without ever knowing the fates of their lost spouses and children.
Years later, Aegeon (of Syracuse in the play, but Amarillo in this version), is traveling around the Mediterranean (Texas) in search of his long lost wife and her charges, and also his own son and servant who had set out on a similar mission years earlier and never returned. He arrives in Ephesus (Abilene) only to find that the cities are at odds, and he is arrested and sentenced to hang at the end of the day if he cannot find someone who will pay his surety.
Unbeknownst to him, his son and his servant have also arrived in town, but have hidden their origins, and move about unhindered. Unbeknownst to them, both the son’s and servant’s lost identical twins are living and prospering in this city. The “errors” of the play are the constant mistaking of the visiting twin for his resident brother, resulting in the visitor being showered with gifts, praise and even a romantic encounter with his “wife,” (although his heart belongs to the unmarried sister-in-law) while his bewildered brother is systematically denied his money, his home and even his identity. Meanwhile the twin servants are constantly encountering the wrong master. Beatings ensue. In the end, a local abbess manages to sort everything out by finally bringing all the family members on stage at once, and providing a surprise twist of her own. No spoiler: if you don’t know how it ends, go see it!
In performance, the most interesting question is how to handle the two sets of identical twins – given that finding even one set of talented twin thespians is not an easy task. Most productions do the next best thing – which is to cast similar looking actors and dress them in nearly identical twin costumes, although usually in some color-coded variation to help us sort them. An interesting variation, perfectly in the spirit of farce, is to cast actors who look absolutely nothing like each other and then dress them alike. I’ve seen a hysterically funny performance in which one of the twin servant Dromios was played by a short, rotund, African-American woman and the other by a tall, thin, almost freakishly white dude. The ease with which we, as audience, could tell them apart rendered even funnier the convention by which the onstage characters could not.
Of course, the premise of the plot requires that the twins are never onstage together until the final scene, so a common solution – and the one adopted by Marin – is to cast just one actor to play the twins using the similar-looking doubles only when it finally becomes necessary.
(Okay, there is one earlier scene in which both Dromios are heard, but one is inside a house of which the other is locked out, so usually only one is visible. By far the funniest sight gag of the evening in Marin was that the interior Dromio – played by the uncredited double – was visible through a window, or would have been had he not been holding an increasingly implausible series of tall props that blocked his face. At first he seemed like an inexperienced actor who didn’t quite realize how large the bottle on the tray he was holding was, but by the time he lugged on a life-sized bust of Shakespeare, the joke was clearly intentional.)
Adopting the single actor solution requires bravura performances. Marin gets them, and then some, from Jon Deline as the Dromios and Patrick Russell as the Antipholi. Literalizing the designation of the Comedians as “Clowns” in Shakespeare’s texts, Deline was costumed (by designer Tammy Berlin) as a rodeo clown with full make-up and fake nose. He is a gifted physical comedian and his best bits were running gags, especially the beatings he took at the hands of his masters. Supplying both grunts and slapping sound effects himself, he managed to alleviate any sense of real harm, while deftly parodying stage combat conventions, by extending the series long beyond the point that his fellow actors mimed contact. The text was so loosely adapted during the entire show, that it made little difference when Deline departed from it, which he did with frequency and relish.
Russell tackled the far more difficult challenge of the Antipholi with astonishing skill. As the visiting Syracuse, he embodied the fresh-faced protagonist perfectly, with growing astonishment as his every wish is granted before it is even spoken, and without any responsibility for his actions. He also captured the loneliness of the character who seemed to be less searching for his missing twin, than trying to find himself. As the smugly privileged brother in Ephesus, his demeanor – not to mention his mounting frustration as his world fell apart – was physicalized so distinctly that it took me a couple of scenes to be certain that the twin performances were being handled by a single actor. When Ephesus finally broke down in what can only be described as a “hissy-fit,” I fell out laughing at his inventiveness.
Bravely, Marin did not color-code the performers in the show. Reappearing in unchanging costumes, they left it to the actors to make clear what is happening. I never had a moment of doubt, however, which Antipholus I was seeing.
Other kinds of virtuosity were on display in the show, from a cast that doubled as the onstage band, to an extensive display of vocal talent from numerous performers belting out both country-western standards and original songs by Leslie Harlib. Women are generally given short shrift in this play, so Amanda Salazar as Adriana and Elena Wright as Luciana made the most of their opportunities for musical expansion. Shirley Smallwood stopped the show with one great ballad incorporated into her tiny part as the Courtesan. The inserted music was not always well-integrated, and often only a line or two or a famous song was quoted as commentary, but the performances were still impressive. (I’m convinced that the Amarillo was selected as the substitute for Syracuse solely so that Russell could sing “Amarillo by Morning.”) The original songs, however, were more cohesive. Musically they were cw simplistic, but the lyrics were exceptionally clever.
Gary Grossman delivered the most irreverently funny performance of the evening as Dr. Pinch, a crackpot imported to cure the “madness” of Antipholus of Ephesus. Dr. Pinch was portrayed as an Indian Medicine Man, of the most horrendous stereotypical style possible, complete with “How”s and “Ug”s. It might have been unendurably offensive if intended as anything like a real comment on Native Americans, but Grossman performed it all in the broadest Borscht Belt style (and dialect) possible. His chants of “Hey, yu, yu, yu”s had a way of morphing into “Hava Nagila.” In under five minutes he managed to pillory everything from psychoanalysis to the nonsensical premise of the show in the Wild West.
You gotta laugh at a production that can laugh at itself.