Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2004
I went to the theatre expecting a kind of rock ‘em sock ‘em robots production and I was not disappointed. The Comedy of Errors is not Shakespeare’s best play, but mercifully it is his shortest. Two hours of frantic slapstick performed by talented folks wearing stunning costumes is just fine with me. Much more of the dreadful, labored verse that makes up much of the dialogue and I would be in agony.
What between the verse, whose meter is so insistent that it creeps into the actors’ speech no matter how hard they try to keep it out, and the brightly colored cartoonish sets and I wondered mightily whether I wasn’t seeing a farce written by the great American poet Theodor Seuss Geisel, rather than one by the British Bard of Avon. There are moments in the action when I would not have been surprised to see the Cat in the Hat pop out of a trap door or discover that the Dromios were being played by Thing One and Thing Two. Such is the world that director Cecil MacKinnon, choreographer Susan Dibble, scenic designer Kris Stone, and costume designer Arthur Oliver have created. They are aided by Jason Fitzgerald’s seamless sound design and a lush musical background inspired by Bau, a Cape Verdean composer and musician.
In case you don’t know the plot, there are these twins. Two sets as a matter of fact, both identical. Two masters named Antipholus and two servants named Dromio. Considering that no one can tell them apart it was very careless of their parents to have given them identical names, but no one has really noticed because one Antipholus and his Dromio live in Syracuse and the other set live in Ephesus, on opposite sides of the Mediterranean Sea. Inevitably the Syracusean pair come to Ephesus on business, coincidentally on the day that the Antipholuses father Ageon is condemned to die, and all hell breaks loose. Antipholus of Ephesus (George Hannah) has a wife Adriana (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) and an unmarried sister-in-law Luciana (Anne Gottlieb) at home, along with a large and lusty kitchen wench Luce (Renée Speltz) who has a hankering for his Dromio (Dan McCleary). Naturally, Antipholus (Michael Milligan) and Dromio (Tony Molina) of Syracuse are mistaken for their Ephesian counterparts. They also encounter a courtesan (Louise Rosager) with whom Antipholus of Ephesus is having an affair, and a simpering Italian goldsmith Angelo (Jason Asprey) to whom he owes money. Fate conspires to keep all four twins apart until the happy ending, which sees Ageon (Jonathan Epstein) pardoned and reunited with his long-presumed dead wife, the Antipholuses mother, Emilia (Ariel Bock).
This is a talented cast that hurtles cheerfully through all the slapstick, pratfalls and double entendres thrown its way, but I cannot help but feel the whole production is grabbing desperately at every laugh it sees, whether or not it fits the concept of the play or the scope of their character. It is fun and funny when those big blue tubular creatures emerge from the trapdoors in the floor, but why? As a six year old I was desperate to ride in a whirling teacup at Disney Land, but what is one doing on the stage at the Founders’ Theatre? MacKinnon has latched on to Biblical the legend that Ephesus was a town filled with witches and conjurers and played it for all its worth, with a spectacular exorcism scene late in the play, but I am not sure that all the voodoo is really worth the excitement.
Everyone over acts to the point of chewing the scenery, which is fine since, unlike Shakespeare’s later plays which are filled with three-dimensional characters, the characters in The Comedy of Errors are merely cardboard cut-outs, place-holders in their two-dimensional cartoon world. MacKinnon has cleverly cast the two sets of twins multi-racially, in other words there is a white Antipholus and a black one, and a white Dromio and a black one. The black Antipholus is attended by the white Dromio and vice versa. Milligan and Hannah are fine as the Antipholuses, but Molina and McCleary are hilarious as the Dromios. And, despite their different ethnic backgrounds, the two men looked and moved so very similarly that there were times when even I couldn’t tell them apart. I was glad MacKinnon gave them, and not Milligan and Hannah, the final bow.
Aspenlieder pulls out all the stops and plays the lusty and liberated Adriana for all she is worth. Gottlieb, who seems relegated to second banana roles this season, plays the meek and obedient Luciana with as much dignity as is possible considering the chaos surrounding her.
Asprey trots out another of his almost indecipherable foreign accents, this time a sort of Italian Inspector Clouseau job. In case you are not familiar with the play, the object Angelo is obsessed with is a golden CHAIN. Under Asprey’s tortured pronunciation it comes out more like “shyhne” and several people near me were deeply confused until he rhymed it with words like “shame” and “pain,” equally mangled, and they got the point.
As usual, Shakespeare & Company’s costumes make the past, real or imaginary, look much more glamorous and comfortable than it really was. Oliver has designed lovely peach and salmon gowns for Aspenlieder and Gottleib and a stunning robe for Mel Cobb in his brief role as Solinus, Duke of Ephesus. The Dromios have comfy-looking and functional floppy flax-y outfits made of a patchwork of earth tones.
Stone’s scenery consists of a Seuss-like series of brightly colored doors on the upper level of the Founders’ Theatre playing space, accessed by matching spiral staircases, and a nifty revolving door below during the second half of the show. It is fun watching surreal changes of characters spin through the four segments of the revolving door, one of which is mirrored, one of which matches the harlequin black and white checks on the floor, one of which is apparently a part of Antipholus of Ephesus’s home, and the last is a brilliantly blue cloud-filled sky
There is no deep secret hidden inner meaning here. This show is meant to be fast and funny and it is. Don’t think, just enjoy. There are worse ways to spend two hours in the theatre.
The Comedy of Errors is running at Shakespeare & Company through September 2 in the Founders’ Theatre on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Younger children may need a quick run down of the plot before they go in order to help them bypass the inscrutible Elizabethean verse. Call 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004