Villanova Theatre’s season opener is the Shakespearean farce THE COMEDY OF ERRORS. It is a charming 100-minute production inspired by Looney Tunes and the television show Laugh In.
Audiences come to Shakespeare expecting complex characters and challenging themes, conveyed by astonishing poetry. Well. . . none of that is present here, in what has been called by some critics: “Shakespeare’s first and worst play”. THE COMEDY OF ERRORS has the Bard plagiarizing more than usual, copying, almost scene for scene, THE TWIN MENAECHMI, by the Roman Playwright Plautus. Legend has it that Shakespeare’s company needed a new comedy in a great hurry, and the young actor suddenly and quickly became a playwright. The great poet would come later.
The mistaken identity plot is extremely difficult to describe, but Villanova’s press release did a good job of it: “Imagine you and your servant are separated at birth from your brother and his servant – two sets of identical twins. Imagine that, after years of estrangement, all four of you somehow wind up in the same town. Now imagine that your brother’s wife mistakes you for him – but not before you’ve tried to seduce her sister.”
This could be pretty confusing, but director Shawn Kairschner keeps the action simple and clear. The key to this production is movement. Every line is accompanied by the appropriate gesture. There is not one extraneous move in the entire evening, with the frequent physical gags delivered solidly. When the servant describes how his master refused to come to dinner and eventually beat him, every line and move is carefully coordinated. Aaron Cromie is the movement coach, and he has given the cast a specific and consistent physical vocabulary, and the action is truly suited to the word.
The movement is also well coordinated with Parris Bradley’s sound design: a mixture of cartoon noises that accompany intricately choreographed actions. The costumes by Charlotte Cloe Fox Wind are a total hoot. The opening scene suggests that ancient Rome has been translated to early California’s melting pot with a mixture of cowboys, mountain men, Spaniards and Chinese. The prostitute is a multi-purpled cowgirl whose privates glow in the dark. The leading twins are Tom Mix style cowboys, and their servants’ pants have more pockets than those of Harpo Marx. The lighting by Jerold R. Forsyth cleverly sets aside the private soliloquies, while the projections give the stage depth and clarify the locations. The colorful set by John Raley seems cut from construction paper, and lacks the delightful specificity of the costumes.
The student actors are a game lot and enjoy what are for most of them their first Shakespearean roles. The movement sometimes tends to overwhelm the characterizations and when the mad cap chases and dances occur in the second half, the actors seem to be executing the choreography rather than being motivated by the desperation or joy that drives these moments. Director Kairschner creates clever gags with cartoon noises, a Laugh In joke wall, and 60’s style projections, but it seems that the director was merely inspired by these elements rather than developing a consistent interpretation that could flow throughput and motivate the production from beginning to end. The joke wall is used only briefly, and when the psychedelic flowers and Laugh In theme song appear, it is only in the final moments, which makes them an afterthought.
The evening is fun, but not hilarious. Indeed, the one gut buster laugh came from a prop pistol that turned a romantic speech into a very funny dirty joke. Most of the time, the audience chuckled appreciatively.
Perhaps the problem is with Shakespeare’s play. One imagines the audiences of ancient Rome and Elizabethan London finding more hilarity in what is, after all, variations on one joke. My own playgoing ERRORS, include a production set in the twenties inspired by the films of Mack Sennett; a rendition set in the Arabian Nights; and the Lincoln Center “new vaudeville” version starring the Flying Karamazov Brothers. All were clever, but without belly laughs. The only delirious production in my experience was the Stratford Ontario musical THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE, which seems to imply that first-drawer Rodgers and Hart is superior to third-drawer Shakespeare.
This production has the trappings of Looney Tunes without actually being one.
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Shawn Kairschner
September 27-October 9, 2011
800 Lancaster Avenue
Villanova, PA 19085