1/9/2022 THE COMEDY OF ERRORS Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse
It’s been a few years since I caught The Comedy of Errors at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse. Although the current iteration has some brilliantly comic ideas not attempted in 2017, it suffers from a major issue I kvetched about then – a rushed exposition filled with mush-mouth that started everything off on the wrong foot.
Well, maybe not started. This time, the play actually begins with the Curtain Speech being interrupted by a frantic stage manager informing the speaker that Ruth Mary Charleston, slated to appear as Dromio of Ephesus, will be unable to appear, so both Dromios will need to be played by the same hapless actor. I can’t wait to see how that final scene gets played!
Anyway, let me start my comments by twinning out my 2017 review, hoping against reason that most of it is “template” in nature and therefore still apropos.
Just as in 2017, this mounting of The Comedy of Errors careens along as if driven by a NASCAR hero and all the comic highs come through, uproarious and gut-busting. But, somehow, far too often, the longer speeches are rushed so quickly, I got the impression the actors were just reciting words, with no "investment" in what they were saying, or, in some cases, with no idea what they were saying. And, somehow, far too often, the few moments of reflection, or danger, or suspense, were simply abandoned to get to the next gag.
Where was Aegeon's panic during the Scene One monologue in which he laid out the plot for us? Where was the joy in the final reunion and reconciliation?
Still, what worked best was this year’s decision to play up the “We-Are-Doubling-The-Crap-Out-Of-These-Roles” motif and business, with dumb-shows and frantic on-stage costume adjustments accompanying all the exposition (and recapping) scenes. It’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that amuses and brings out a rapturous series of giggles. It SHOULD distract from he beauty of the language, the sense of the words, but somehow, the joys trump the confusions and I chose to semi-engage rather than semi-judge.
Just in case you're not a Shakespeare scholar and don't know the story, hear me out. Welcome to Ephesus, where the rivalry with Syracuse is so intense, it is death for any Syracusan to be caught within the city. Aegeon, a hapless merchant of Syracuse, has come to Ephesus to find his long-lost son Antipholus. Through a long and unconvincing narrative, Aegeon lets his captors (and us) know that his wife gave birth to twin sons at the same inn and on the same day as a low-born-woman gave both to twin sons. The low-born twins are adopted to become servants to the high-born twins (you just gotta love Elizabethan socio-politics!). Soon, a series of misadventures tears the family apart. Aegeon has been searching for his family for thirty long years.
Next, we meet Antipholus and Dromio, a master and servant of Syracuse as they seek fame and fortune. We also meet Antipholus and Dromio, a master and servant of Ephesus as they seek women and wealth (and also seek to avoid Adriana, aka "Mrs. Antipholus"). Faster than you can say "my evil twin brother Skippy," confusions abound, errors are made, and Dromios are beaten. The action builds and the confusions become more outrageous until ... Well, until, as in one long-past televised version, everyone gets to juggle again(*).
Based on a Roman Farce by Plautus (he who was responsible for the source tale of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), The Comedy of Errors is often a fun show, if logistically difficult to cast (TWO sets of twins? Good luck with that!).
So, we have ONE set of almost-look-alike actors (Chris Hecke and Nicholas Hoop) playing the Antipholuseses (Antipholi?), but one extraordinarily energetic (and talented) Mary Ruth Ralston playing both Dromios. So, unlike 2017 in which the guiding motif was “They look nothing alike and isn’t everyone foolish thinking they do,” this time, the Antipholuseses are convincingly twins. To be honest, both approaches work well in different ways, giving the play different focuseses (“foci”?) that are equally valid.
Here, Ms. Ralston is the star and it is a positive delight witnessing her go through her paces, using a floppy hat to differentiate the characters It is a true joy watching her dialogue with herself, betting if she’ll make it back on stage in time for her next too-soon-as-somebody-else entrance. It is a bravura exercise in comic (almost Commedia-esque) timing and skill.
On a subtler note, she also varies her interactional subtext with the Antipholuseses so we are very well aware of when she is with the “right” or the “wrong” master – the Syracusans have a brash camaraderie that manifests in gestures and routines and real friendship, while the Ephesians have a very strict master/servant dynamic. Needless to say, a good deal of comic mileage arises from when she interacts with the wrong master in the wrong way. It may be a subtle choice, but it is extraordinarily effective in a way that the mere presence or absence of floppy hat cannot hope to match.
There have been productions in which both sets of twins have been played by a single actor (most notably a Stratford Canada production with The Who’s Roger Daltrey as the Dromios), but they relied on body doubles for the final scene or video trickery for taped versions. Here, it’s a brilliant series of well-staged and well-timed bits of comic zaniness. This is so much better ...
As to the rest of the cast, Kati Grace Brown is the fiercest Adriana this side of hurricane season, and Ebony Jerry is the not-as-retiring-as-she-seems Luciana. Rivka Levin is nicely brazen as the courtesan and Becky Cormier Finch brilliantly brings together all the loose plot ends as the Abbess Aemilia. Although I was disappointed in the opening scene with the Duke and with Aegeon, those actors acquitted themselves nicely (dare I say redeemed?) with a gloriously quackified Dr. Pinch and a marvelous round and lewdly drooling Kitchen Wench Nell. Everyone else proved competent at the hi-jinks and slapstick, over-the-top energy and storytelling, and broad-stroke characterization, even if they some were occasionally mush-mouthed and rushed with the dialogue.
Still and all, this was a fun production of an "easy to get" Shakespeare farce, made even more palatable by the brilliant efforts of Mary Ruth Ralston, and filled to the brim with nonsense, horse sense, and, I presume, bordello scents. I just wish Director O’Neil Delapenha would have remembered that even laughter grows uncomfortable (and lines become unintelligible) if you don't occasionally stop to catch your breath.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #ASCCOE)
(*) Remember the Flying Karamazov Brothers? They performed a "Juggling Version" of COE for "Live from Lincoln Center" in 1987, which is a joy to behold, and may actually be available on YouTube.