Monday, August 03, 2009

Commonwealth Shakespeare presents The Comedy of Errors on Boston Common 2009

Hurray for free Shakespeare on Boston Common!  I’ve had a grand time for the past few weeks pimping the show to anybody that would listen.  Without Citibank, their big sponsor, the show had to go on entirely via donations this year.  They deliberately picked Comedy of Errors, a relatively simple show to stage, to keep costs down (and, I’d expect, a slapstick comedy to bring the audience in a bit more than a Pericles might :)).

We got there on Saturday just before 6pm for the 8pm show.  I was doing play-by-play on Twitter for those that watch such things.  We got our dinner (P.F. Chang’s), got our chair rentals, and found a spot.  As usual, all the prime seating near the front of the stage was roped off.  I’ve always assumed that was for paying customers.  At the time there was a big tent right in the middle, but they took that down.

I’m told there were 6000 people there, which I think is pretty good!  If everybody coughed up some donation money that would certainly help.  The volunteers were a little aggressive in the begging, but you can’t really fault them, can you?  I bought a sweatshirt for $25 and the girl working the counter even said, “…unless you want to leave more as a donation.” I informed her that I’d already rented my chairs and put my $20 in the hat that had been passed, and I was all tapped out.

[ On a related note, I appreciate that they were all volunteers, though I do wish they’d maybe been trained a little better.  I could not get a single question answered, no lie.  “Are you doing chair rentals this year?” I don’t know, not my department.  “Got rained out last night, huh?”  We did?  “Did the announcement just say something about discount parking?” I don’t know I wasn’t listening. ]

The show of course was wonderful.  Is there anybody reading my blog who does not know the plot?  Start with a crazy premise – that there’s two sets of identical twins, both of who have a master/servant relationship (Dromio is servant to Antipholus), who do not realize that they’re both in town at the same time.  One set, from Syracuse, has come to Ephesus, where the others live.  It just so happens that it’s illegal for people from Syracuse to come to Ephesus, which is a whole different plot point.  Anyway, you can imagine how the farce goes.  Antipholus of Ephesus is married, but Antipholus of Syracuse is not.  And then he (of Syracuse) runs into his supposed wife, who has no idea that he’s not her husband.  “Come home to dinner!” she says.  “Who are you and why are you yelling at me?” he says.  You don’t need to follow Shakespeare to know what happens when a husband says that to a wife :).  And it just gets sillier from there.

The fun thing about this play is that it’s almost entirely about the over the top physical comedy.  The Dromios take the brunt of it, getting beaten regularly for screwing up messages delivered to the wrong master.  Which of course makes them more likely to run around the stage screaming like crazy people.    The “round like a Globe” scene, where Dromio describes just how big fat and sweaty his counterpart’s girlfriend (wife?) is, was hysterical.  Act out the words in the right way and the audience comes right along for the ride.  We may not know what “break your pate” means but if somebody gets clobbered over the head when it’s said, you can kinda sorta figure it out.

How do you pull off two sets of twins on stage?  Well it helped that for the Dromios, one of them was clearly maybe 40lbs heavier than his counterpart, something not referenced on stage but clearly noticeable by the audience.  Whether that was intentional, I don’t know.  They were both dressed identically (as golf caddies).  The Antipholuses were much harder, since they looked identical from where I sat.  The only way you could really tell was by the staging, and by following the story.  There were logical places where one Antipholus just ran out stage left, and then entered stage right, and you’re left saying “Oh, ok, that’s the other one.”  Luckily they are never both on stage, at least until the last scene.

There is one plot point we did not get (I admit to not reading up on the play before attending).  A goldsmith brings a custom made chain to Antipholus, which he had done as a gift for his wife.  He even says “Bring it to my wife and she’ll pay you,” so we know that it is intended for her.  But later some new woman shows up claiming that she gave him a ring, and in exchange she was to get the chain, or some sort of chain?  I was completely lost by that.  Where’d she come from? Not knowing what scenes may have been cut I don’t know what we missed.

My wife loved the show, telling me that she much prefers the silly comedies to the deeper stuff like Hamlet.  “They’re two different things,” I point out.  “Sometimes you just go for the laugh.  But it’s not like years from now I’ll be saying Hey remember how well Egeon did the scene where he reunites with his long lost wife?  This sort of play’s not about that.  But I can tell you in detail every Hamlet I’ve seen.” [And for the record that’s different than a few years ago when another couple told us that “for her money, Taming of the Shrew is *better* than Hamlet.”  Don’t say things like that, that makes me sad when you say things like that.]

The only thing I’m left to figure out is the scene breaks, where they would perform a sort of zany dance number.  We’ve got at least a partial beach theme, complete with lifeguard in his chair, and beachballs.  Fine.  But then a bunch of nuns dance by (was one of them on a bicycle? I forget), and one strips off to reveal a bathing suit underneath.  Then come the cops chasing the bad guys, cops run into nuns, everybody dances… know what I mean?  I think there’s a name for the style, and I can’t quite place it.  Was like something out of a silent movie (though there was a soundtrack).  Kind of Benny Hill, though not as fast :).

This is the first I’d ever seen Comedy of Errors produced, so I was a little bit lost.  Somebody explain the significance?  I want to say that the Karamazov’s did a similar thing where there was a circus-like number between scenes.  Is all this just to put us in the mood of “Ephesus is a zany place?” Reminds me of Monty Python.

If you’re around, go.  Go early and camp out with a picnic, or come late and just sit down on the grass.  There are a number of food trucks where you can get your dinner, so don’t worry about that.  Be generous in your donations, they need everything they can get.  I am tremendously appreciative of what they’ve been able to pull off on their own, and I can only hope that each year’s efforts are enough to carry the show on for another year.


Craig said...

Families reunited and the healing power of time are usually themes we associate with late-period Shakespeare: Pericles and A Winter's Tale and all that. It certainly takes a back seat to the knockabout slapstick in this play, but I think it is interesting how, even at the start, Shakespeare tinged his comedy with sadness and loss.

"Errors" doesn't make my ten best list, but it is a lot of fun if done well, with lots of spirit and a headlong velocity that doesn't give you time to think that nothing in the play makes any damn sense at all. I don't think there's really anything in it you could call a great passage or a great phrase, and sometimes it makes me a bit sad that it is so much easier to see a very minor work of Shakespeare than it is to see, for instance, The Alchemist or The Duchess of Malfi.

But, hey, sometimes it's just good to laugh.

Jeremy said...

Interesting you should bring up "Pericles": The end of that show is from the same source as "Comedy" (Apollonius of Tyre), though with a completely different tone.
The company I work with (Portland Actors Ensemble) is producing both of those shows next year. I'm trying to talk them into doing the shows in rep with the same Actors, costumes and set but I can't get them to bite.

Jeremy said...

An important plot point in "Comedy" that's often lost: Ant. of Ephesus has only been in Ephesus for a number of years. Adrana was a ward of the Duke and was granted to Ant. as part of his good service. The two are not that good a match and they are wildly suspicious of each other.

This is where the Chain comes in, Ant of E bought it to prove his love, but when presented with the idea that his wife is unfaithful, he's just as quick to give it to somebody else.

Craig said...

My idea for a repertory that will never happen: Two Noble Kinsmen and A Midsummer Night's Dream--but you don't know which one you're going to see until the play starts. They both open with the wedding procession of Theseus and Hippolyta, and a little tweaking of the text gives us a the same first minute or so on stage. Once the play has started, the stage manager flips a coin. Heads, and she sends on Egeus and the young lovebirds--we do Midsummer. Tails, and she cues the three queens for Kinsmen.

Odds of this ever happening: zero. But it's fun to think about.

Jeremy said...

Another company here in Portland (Northwest Classical Theatre) recently did "Comedy" and "Timon" together on the same night. They asked the audience to vote at the top of the show which one they would show first.