Saturday, July 24, 2010

Comedy of Errors: A Masterpiece at the Great River Shakespeare Festival

Comedy of Errors. Dir. Paul Mason Barnes. Perf. Corey Allen, Doug Scholz-Carlson, Christopher Gerson, Tarah Flanagan, Shanara Gabrielle, Michael Fitzpatrick, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Jack Forbes-Wilson, Jeff Schaetsky, Andrew Carlson, Evan Fuller, David Coral, Kate Mazzola, and David Rudi Utter. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2010. Photo Credit: Michael Fitzpatrick as “Antipholus of Ephesus” and Christopher Gerson as “Dromio of Ephesus.” Photo by Alec Wild.
Yesterday, I saw one of the best productions of a Shakespearean comedy—any Shakespearean comedy—that I have ever been privileged to see. The Great River Shakespeare Festival has, once again, provided a masterpiece with its Comedy of Errors.

The production is filled with perfect moments. The set, the lighting, the music, the acting, the singing, and the physical comedy were all exactly right. Paul Barnes, the director, is to be commended for his sweeping vision of reconciliation, grace, and redemption that permeates the play.

There's so much to say about this production that I need to break it into categories to give each part its due in this review.

Sets and Setting:

As is only to be expected at the Great River Shakespeare Festival, the settings were impressive beyond belief. The set is intricately designed, with beautiful wrought iron, interesting ramps, a raised center platform (which holds a grand piano and a grand pianist) and, in the background, silhouettes that give the impression of Spanish moss and balconies.

For the setting of his production, Paul Barnes has chosen New Orleans during Mardi Gras around 1931. It's an inspired choice, and one that contributes materially to the meaning of the play. In New Orleans, the Sacred and the Secular have an easygoing relationship. During Mardi Gras, it's a city of masks and revelry, of license and carnival—but with a religious dimension, as the season of Lent is about to begin. The Comedy of Errors likewise has the carnival of mistaken identities and the world turned upside down—but with the threat of execution hanging over it. New Orleans was clearly not chosen flippantly but with a clear sense of the way its significance could be integrated with the significance of the play. Added to that is a cultural familiarity with witchcraft, voodoo, and the occult in general—and a fear of these elements from outsiders. The play and the setting share that as well.

The deep southern accents develop out of the setting, and they work well for this play. They're broad, over-the-top, not-necessarily-absolutely-authentic accents, and their effect is to add a musicality to the lines, slowing them down (for the most part) and enhancing the audience's appreciation of the speeches—particularly where rhymed couplets are involved.


There isn't an actor in this production who is not brilliant. Each one gives absolutely everything to the part, and the whole becomes that much greater than the sum of its parts as a result. I wish I had time to write about each actor; because I don't, a representative sampling will have to do.

Jonathan Gillard Daly presents an exceptionally moving Egeon—the father of the twins who, because he is from Syracuse and has ventured into the forbidden territory of Ephesus, is doomed to face execution at the end of the day. His speech about the loss of his wife and one of his sons (and that son's servant) and the compounded tragedy of his other son (and his other son's servant) leaving home many years ago did not just help establish the plot. It created an immediate sympathy that carried over throughout the play. The audience gratefully appreciates the Duke's merciful (and, quite possibly, mercenary) decision to allow Egeon to attempt to gather the required 1,000 marks for his bail from the citizens of Ephesus. Throughout the play, Egeon re-appears, asking all the Mardi Gras revelers for a donation ("In Syracusa was I born . . .") and occasionally breaking into a chorus or two of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

Doug Scholz-Carlson and Christopher Gerson are stunning as the two Dromios. Their position is carefully crafted. They sing, from opposite sides of the stage, "Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child" and share idiosyncrasies like pulling on their ears when deep in thought. There's a considerable sensitivity in their portrayals, particularly at the end of the play (about which, there is more to come). The comedy the two deliver is peerless. There are moments when they break into song, accompanied by the ubiquitous piano music; occasionally, they start to sound like Dr. Seuss, as in this passage delivered by Dromio of Ephesus:
A crow without feather? Master, mean you so?
For a fish without a fin, there's a fowl without a feather;
If a crow help us in, sirrah, we'll pluck a crow together. (III.i)
Photo Credit: Tarah Flanagan as “Adriana.” Photo by Alec Wild.
Tarah Flanagan plays Adriana (who is, at one point, called "shrewish" by her husband) with delicacy and humor. Although worried about her husband's absence and puzzled by his lack of attention to her, she does not step over into the commedia delle'arte stereotype of The Shrew. Instead, she demands our sympathy—all the more so because, in this production, her husband does seem to be guilty of some of the philandering she suspects. Adriana is also portrayed as marvelously witty and funny. This is most evidently the case during one of her long speeches near the end of the play. In it, she summarizes the course of events, acting out all the plot points she mentions. When she gets to the line "the abbess shuts the gates on us," she brilliantly portrays the Abbess (whom we have just seen as a relatively reasonable woman) as a vicious dragon-monster beyond all telling of it:
Anon, I wot not by what strong escape,
He broke from those that had the guard of him;
And with his mad attendant and himself,
Each one with ireful passion, with drawn swords,
Met us again and madly bent on us,
Chased us away; till, raising of more aid,
We came again to bind them. Then they fled
Into this abbey, whither we pursued them:
And here the abbess shuts the gates on us
And will not suffer us to fetch him out,
Nor send him forth that we may bear him hence. (V.i)
The presentation is calculated to bring the house down—and, last night, it did exactly that.


Music pervades the play. Sometimes, it's gospel music. The entire cast sings "When the Saints Go Marching in," "O Happy Day," and "Amazing Grace." Sometimes, it's folk music. We hear bits of "I am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger" and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Sometimes, it's a piano accompaniment. At the beginning, it's something of a retrospective of the seven years of the festival—the opening number mentions locations from every play the festival puts on. In all cases, it works seamlessly with the play.


Although the play could be presented as just heading to the punchline—the epiphany where the two sets of twins are revealed and all the mistaken identity cleared up for good and all, neither Shakespeare nor Paul Barnes will let it rest there.

At the end of the play, it's reunion time. The father is reunited with his wife and his two sons. The mother is reunited with her husband and her two sons. Each of the sons is reunited with his brother, his mother, and his father. And the Dromios are united with each other.

That amazing moment is punctuated by the Abbess leading the assembled company in "Amazing Grace." At the performance I saw, the audience started to laugh at that point—perhaps suspecting an intentional irony or overstatement—but they soon became moved by the number instead of amused by it. Indeed, the grace of reunion and reconciliation are overwhelming at that point.

But it doesn't stop there. Most of those who have been reunited have been reunited with three other people. The Dromios are the exception. After the rest of the company has settled down, they sing "I once was lost but now am found." I have seldom seen anything more moving than their reunion. They only have each other restored to them—but they have found each other, and, it seems, they have found themselves. The stage devices that are used to emphasize their emotional reunion are enough to bring the most hard-hearted audience to tears.

Those stage devices (which I'm able to fill in now that the season has ended) border on the overly-sentimental and might be viewed as merely manipulative—but I found them moving, tasteful, and meaningful.

As the two Dromios approach each other, they each pull a mismatched pair of baby shoes from their back pockets. That moment was intriguing. Somehow, in the middle of the shipwreck that befell them when they were infants, their shoes got on their feet—but in such a hurry that one had a left green and a right red shoe (and vice versa for the other). They each had been carrying the unmatched pair all the time since the shipwreck.

The search for identity, the emotional unsettlement, the chaos of a life lived apart are all embedded in those shoes. The two Dromios, in absolute wonder and awe, show each other the shoes; they then untie the laces and match the pairs.

The significance of the exchange had so many layers that I neglected to see what was happening on the rest of the stage. When I looked away from the Dromios, the Antipholuses (Antipholii?) also had baby shoes and were grinning to beat the band, but I'm not sure where they came from.

One idea that came from the almost-but-not-quite identical shoes was one presented by the text of the play itself and underlined in this production. Even though the Dromios are identical twins, they are also individuals. While Dromio of Syracuse can't abide the thought of marrying Nell, the other twin's fiancée, who "is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her" (III.ii), Dromio of Ephesus is devotedly in love with her. All in all, it was one of the most delightful moments I've ever experienced in a theatre.

The end of the play fills the stage, the play, and the auditorium with grace and joy.

The Great River Shakespeare Festival's Comedy of Errors is astonishing in every respect. And only four more performances remain! Make every effort to see one of them.

[Editor's Note: The Seventh Season of the GRSF is now concluded. The Eighth Season, however, will provide deeply significant and worthwhile productions. Start making plans for next year now!]

In the meantime, Bardfilm is off to this afternoon's performance of Othello. The review will follow!

Links: The Great River Shakespeare Festival.


Lucy M. said...

Could not agree more! I saw the play as well and though I've been to seasons 3-7 I was again blown away by how entertaining this play was.Fantastic! If you can go, you must!!!

Pete Rivard said...

I'd like to comment on Evan Fuller's pitch perfect support as the servant Luce. His facial expressions and related physical humor shored up what is certainly not some of the Bard's strongest work and had the audience exploding with laughter. Even when he was staged way off to the side of the stage both my gaze and that of my daughter's kept drifting back to him to see what flavor of disapproval, disappointment and louche dismissal was being displayed in every aspect of his expressions and body language. That fellow stole more than one scene in which he was granted little, if any dialogue.

kj said...

Lucy and Pete:

Thank you both for your comments! The production of this play was stupendous and the Festival in general is superb. Every actor gave a stellar performance.

You're absolutely right, Pete, about Luce. Both Evan Fuller as Luce and Duncan Halleck as Agador added exceptional comic weight to the play, and Jack Forbes Wilson's Piano was simply thrilling.

Anxiously Awaiting Season Eight,


Anonymous said...

I agree. A great version of Shakespeare's one of his plays where the music supported the play in unexpected ways--and the humor was played well.

Anonymous said...

I cannot disagree more with your assessment--I almost walked out twice during the show.

From the self-referential opening number to the painfully shoehorned in southern references (not even New Orleans references--all of a sudden Elvis and Janis Joplin are running across stage with Scout and Jem from To Kill A Mockingbird? The streetcar references were terrible as well, but at least they could be justified by the setting) to the sing along at the end, everything in this production reeked of sugar. I'm no purist when it comes to Shakespeare, but good gravy, Comedy of Errors is one of the most accessible shows out there, you don't need to dumb it down further and turn it into a jukebox musical all the while apologising to the audience for the text they have to endure before the next sing along.

As far as Luce goes, sure he stole scenes, but that's because he was overacting and upstaging people. I completely lost what was going on in the story because of his constant mugging.

What bugs me is there were some clever and well executed things in the show; the reading of the cast of characters at the top was interesting; the way the Antipholus/Dromio fights were handled with the hat lazzi. If only they had concentrated their talents on good instead of sacchrine.

And as far as the moment of pathos at the end, I agree, it's a lovely moment--In Another Show, not this one. You can't all of a sudden tug on an audiences heart strings and ask them to truly emotionally invest in two characters after leading a sing along to When The Saints Go Marching In. You either get the pathos or you get the balls to the wall zany; with all the crazy that had preceded it the moment seemed forced and formulaic

Here's hoping Othello is better, because it can't get much worse.

kj said...

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. It's good to see a balance of viewpoint.

The way in which the reunion scene is work could be legitimately criticized for being overly sentimental (I'll still maintain silence on the particular method until the Festival closes), but, even with that danger, the production is magnificent. The setting helps enormously in that—the chaos and hilarity of Mardi Gras gives way to the serious soul-searching of Lent. This production mirrors that.

The running ham—well, yes. It's over-the-top. But I did not consider that to be pandering or cheap audience appeal. It was part and parcel of the setting.

But it's fair to point out that these devices may not work for every audience member.

I do hope you enjoyed their Othello. It's a decidedly different production!


Anonymous said...

I'm a scientist and have few if any artistic molecules in my body: but I LOVED this play, performance, sets, and setting. Absolutely splendid!

Jelena said...

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