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The Comedy of Errors

Dramatic Possibilities of a Slapstick Comedy

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014, C–5 (center stalls)
Directed by Ralph Alan Cohen

Adriana to right kissing Antipholus, holding his cheeks in her hands, and Antipholus has his arm outstretched behind him with his hand on Dromio's chest, holding him back; Dromio stands there looking puzzled. AUdiences in the background, and the blond wood stage wall behind which audiences sit.
Dromio of Syracuse (John Harrell, left) and Antipholus of Syracuse (Gregory Jon Pheps) are caught in a puzzling circumstance with Adriana (Allison Glenzer) the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus in the American Shakespeare Center's production of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Below, Antipholus of Ephesus (Jonathan Holtzman) and Dromio of Ephesus (Chris Johnston) maneuver around a member of the audience sitting on one of the gallants' stools on stage. Photos by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.

What can you hope to expect in a production of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors when it not only keeps intact Egeon's overlong expository speech that opens the play but presents it in a formal, by-the-book manner with no interruptions such as people snoring or miming the events of Egeon's tale? What can you expect in a Comedy of Errors in which Adriana is a woman dramatically grappling with both the frustration and guilt of being scorned by her wayward husband? What can you expect when the pairs of identical twins are far from identical?

When all of this is part of American Shakespeare Center's production of The Comedy of Errors, expect to laugh a lot at the jokes and comic situations, expect to appreciate Shakespeare's genius in the way he constructed one of his earliest comedies, and expect to see a transcendent performance in the most unexpected of roles.

Ralph Alan Cohen, ASC co-founder and the company's director of mission, directs this Comedy of Errors. His premise, which, of course, is part of the ASC mission but one he particularly adheres to, is that Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing, so if the play is staged exactly as written and under the staging conditions Shakespeare's company worked in, we will see how the playwright's ingenuity comes to living and entertaining fruition. It helps that ASC regularly assembles a company of intelligent actors well-versed in verse speaking, well-trained in modern classical theater, and experienced in the Jacobean playhouse conditions represented by the Blackfriars Playhouse, the world's only replica of the indoor theater that Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, operated: universal lighting, no electronic effects, and direct proximity to the audience with some patrons sitting on gallants' stools on the stage.

In this production, ASC experiments further with the use of gallants' stools. Historical evidence (associated with Shakespeare's colleagues, but not Shakespeare himself) indicates the gallants' stools might not have been just on the flanks of the stage but in the play space itself. For The Comedy of Errors, Cohen has pulled four stools forward, and the people sitting on them become part of the action. One kid is enticed to massage the shoulders of the two Dromios, one woman becomes a barrier that Dromio uses to keep Antipholus at bay, and another woman relinquishes her stool to a distressed Antipholus and then participates in comforting him. It certainly adds to the play's humor, but it also requires the actors to be on their toes even more than usual, and that's a challenge some members in the company might need a few more performances to get used to.

With costumes by Erin M. West, this Ephesus is a classical-period cartoonville, a la Disney's Hercules. The two Antipholi wear identical bright yellow short togas with purple sashes and orange leggings. The other merchants are dressed in earth-tone short togas and leggings. The two Dromios wear blue short togas with bright orange and yellow trimming, orange head scarves, and Beech-Nut Fruit Stripe leggings. The sisters are dressed in the style of Greek maidens on an urn, Adriana in lovely blue, gold, and burgundy, and Luciana in South Beach aqua. The courtesan dresses as an Arabian belly dancer; the Abbess is draped from head to toe in black; and the "spherical" Luce waddles out in a swarthy, ultra-wide-hipped kitchen wench dress, wild hair, and the teeth of a hockey player who probably should have retired a decade or two ago. Sarah Fallon is not at all recognizable as Luce, and it's impossible to reconcile that visage with her Patience-sitting-on-a-monument portrayal of the Abbess—talk about range.

Who are recognizable are each member of the pairs of twins. Dromio of Syracuse (John Harrell) is much taller and heftier than Dromio of Ephesus (Chris Johnston). More disparate are the two Antipholi: he of Ephesus (Jonathan Holtzman) has a full beard, he of Syracuse (Gregory Jon Phelps) does not. Cohen is reasonably certain that Shakespeare's company did not have two sets of identical twins, so Shakespeare probably did not worry too much about making them confusingly identical. What matters more than us being confused is that the people on stage are confused, so you use staging conditions (i.e., the same clothes, the same behavior) to represent indistinguishable people. For New York's Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park staging of The Comedy of Errors last year, director Daniel Sullivan opined that without identical pairs of actors the people of Ephesus would look "remarkably stupid to think that these are the same people." Thus, he had one actor play both Antipholi and one play both Dromios and used doubles for the last scene, which can be interpreted as the director thinking the people in the audience are so stupid that they can't get the obvious, ongoing joke. Cohen's way is, perhaps, the opposite extreme, and yet it not only is probably closer to Shakespeare's methodology, it certainly is closer to Shakespeare's intent: not that the people of Ephesus are stupid but that everybody on stage and in the audience is at a play that is on the one hand a farce and on the other hand an exploration of assumptive behavior and the proclivity to see the world only through your perspective-honed lens.

This production leans heavily on physical, slapstick humor—every cartoon-like beating is accompanied by percussion-generated sound effects from back stage. The twins of Syracuse position themselves into vaudeville comic-duo mode when they do their set-piece routines, such as Dromio describing Luce as a globe where he can find countries in her. One of the evening's highlights is the intermission music, which the players perform on the stage instead of up in the gallery; the set list includes Phelps singing Weird Al Yankovic's "I Think I'm a Clone Now" parody of the Tommy James and the Shondells/Tiffany hit "I Think We're Alone Now," and the two Dromios and two Antipholi combining for a soft-shoe rendition of "Me and My Shadow."

Nevertheless, the secret of this production's humor is in the subtle performances. Few can play naive confusion like Phelps can. His Antipholus of Syracuse walks a tightrope between knowing what he's seeing and hearing and understanding what he's seeing and hearing. As Adriana sermonizes to him about his duty to the marriage bed, Phelps in his expression tries to rationalize the encounter before he finally gives up and replies with: "Plead you to me, fair dame?" By contrast, Holtzman's Antipholus of Ephesus reacts to confusion with anger. Perhaps paranoid (he grew up the orphan almost all his life in Ephesus whereas his brother grew up with their father and has spent the past five years traveling, looking for his twin), he automatically defaults to a persecution complex coupled with righteous indignation that merits revenge.

Nobody but nobody can play oblivion like Harrell can. When Harrell's Dromio returns to his Antipholus, who has just encountered the other Dromio, Harrell maintains a sweetly innocent face, as Dromio is incapable of understanding what Antipholus is telling him and, then, believing Antipholus is carrying out an extended jest (Antipholus likewise thinks Dromio is carrying out an extended jest). When things get weirder, Harrell's Dromio seems to take it all in with blithe bemusement—except for that oversized kitchen wench who lays claim to him; that really frightens him. Johnston's version of Dromio, meanwhile,merely takes everything in stride without considering it too deeply. Confusion and persecution, it seems, are part of his everyday service in the Ephesian Antipholus and Adriana household, while indignation is little more than whining bravado.

Orbiting these duo dynamics, the play's other characters cycle into a spiral of mayhem. Among them, Angelo the goldsmith (Patrick Midgley) best captures the state of mind of dawning confusion. Angelo has been commissioned by Antipholus of Ephesus for a chain, he gives the chain to Antipholus of Syracuse, later demands payment from Antipholus of Ephesus who vehemently denies ever receiving the chain, he is arrested for debt and then arrests Antipholus of Ephesus for debt, and subsequently encounters Antipholus of Syracuse showing off the chain. Midgley plays Angelo as little more than a two-dimensional cutout in his first appearance, accompanying Antipholus of Ephesus home to dinner where they find the door locked; over the course of the play, Midgley maintains this stiff, formal demeanor in Angelo but his face can't hide his growing consternation that nothing but nothing is making sense around here. His stiffness turns to coiled frustration, and he starts speaking the word chain as a full-throated curse word. Would he had never made that chain; heck, would he had never become a goldsmith; he could have been an insurance broker instead. Such are the type of thoughts we see running through Angelo's head in Midgley's playing.

Antipholus with a beard looks to his right in a state of readiness, knees bent, while across from him Dromio points a finger and has his mouth open. Between them, a young man sits with right ankle on left knee, leaning forward with hands clasped, and wearing a blue and white striped polo shirt and brown pants. In the background is more audience. If Cohen seems bold to so off-handedly present identical twins as hardly identical, he shows even more courage in playing the opening scene determinedly pure, something few directors attempt, even those who embrace a text-centrc philosophy. Egeon (James Keegan), bound in chains and at the prompting of the Duke of Ephesus (René Thornton Jr.), gives a straight reading of his life story, more than 100 lines of expository verse. None of this is funny; but it is consumingly dramatic in the expert line readings of both actors (and worth noting, Keegan later plays a comical, less-than-dedicated police officer, and Thornton plays Dr. Pinch as an in-over-his-head mystic, his mere appearance garnering a huge laugh). What becomes obvious in this staging is how Shakespeare intentionally lifts you into a play promising to be a rhetoric-driven tragedy and then hits you in the very next scene with gut-busting clowns engaging in pun-filled wordplay.

If our expectations suffer a minor temblor with this juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy, a bigger shock awaits those members of the audience familiar with one particular member of this playhouse's resident company. Allison Glenzer is cast as Adriana, and we eagerly imagine what this actress, locally famous for her crazy clowns and lusty wenches, will do with the scorned wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. But we never imagined this: a seriously dramatic reading of the part, her jokes delivered with bittersweet comic effect. Cohen, in his program notes, writes that Adriana is "not the typical shrew or a stereotype of any kind" but a forerunner of Shakespeare's great, deeply passionate comic heroines and tragic wives to come. Glenzer so brilliantly captures this ideal that her speeches on marriage and duty have a riveting effect on the audience. Yet, she's never a downer in the play's overall comic tone; in fact, her funny lines generate hearty laughter because they come from her heart. "He is deformed, crooked, old and sere, ill-faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere" she says of her husband, with so many myriad meanings, from generic to vulgar, folded into her delivery. I've seen this actress soar in many dramatic roles, including Emilia in Othello, the Countess in All's Well That End's Well, and the Jailor's Daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen: We can add Adriana in Comedy of Errors to that list.

So, this Comedy of Errors is right by Shakespeare. But did Shakespeare, then, get it right? One piece of objective evidence I can offer is the woman sitting next to me (whom I do not know). She laughs throughout the play but audibly gasps when the Abbess reveals herself to be Egeon's long-lost Emilia, a common reaction, cast members later told me. Based on her reaction, I have to assume she had never seen or read The Comedy of Errors. This would indicate that the first audiences had a similar reaction to Shakespeare's comic farce with a dramatic arc wrapped inside a three-layer love story: you become invested at the beginning, you laugh throughout, and you are fulfilled at the end.

Eric Minton
July 22, 2014

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