Saturday 13 June 2015

A true Comedy of Errors kicks off Bard '15 season

Background & plot tidbits :  In his Annotated Shakespeare of 2,461 pages, Professor A. L. Rowse asserts that Comedy of Errors is not just WS's first comedy, but indeed his first published play altogether. Often dismissed as superficial, CoE has as its central conceit not just one set of twins, but two, and moreover, the twins from each set have identical names. Two high-born Antipholus's, and two low-born Dromio's who were bought-at-birth to be manservants to the A's. They're all 30-somethings now -- but paired-off since their early diaper days.

A shipwreck when they were all babes utlimately finds one pair of A-&-D in Ephesus (Greek-ruled Turkey), while the other pair found their way back to their original birthplace in faraway Syracusa (Sicily). The two cities are currently in a trade war, and death awaits any Syracusa merchant found in Ephesa.

Dad Aegeon from Syracusa has been desperate to find his lost twin son all these years. He has scoured Greece endlessly in search, landing at last in Ephesus quite by chance. Because he is on enemy turf, however, he will be put to death unless he can come up with 1,000 ducats by way of trade-war-tax. He has until sundown. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have accompanied Aegeon on his quest and are central to the comic action. It turns out the same-named Antipholus Son #2, meanwhile, has lived with his manservant Dromio in Ephesus since the shipwreck decades back. (In the text their lines are noted thus : Ant. E, Ant. S, Dro. E and Dro. S respectively.)

How the sets of twins came to have identical names is "just one of those things". Elizabethan audiences likely wouldn't think it absurd despite being a wholly gimmicky contrivance. But it is that single stroke that allows Shakespeare to manufacture scene-after-scene of mistaken identity, confused partnerships and alliances and all the slapstick physical comedy such a goofy scenario provides for.

The various masters and servants, their women, the town's bureaucrats and common folk alike all caterwaul like a herd of cats in a barn as they jump and hiss and slap their paws at one another. At each turn they think the "one" they're dealing with is actually the "other" they know, and that confusion drives the mania and angst that unfold. The town quite clearly, everyone thinks, is overrun with witches, mountebanks and "Lapland sorcerers" because of the ongoing betrayals and behaviour outrages caused by the neverending hall of mirrors involving all four twins. Until play's end. When "all is revealed" and "all's well that ends well" -- familiar Billy Bard tropes for sure. (Somehow Mom [Anna Galvin] has become the local nunnery Abbess and knows not of her local son. Until the "reveal". Ah, yes. "Willing suspension of disbelief" is what we must bring to drama, always, according to English poet & aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge 200 years back.)

Rollicking rampant madness afoot : 'Tis not often I find myself in fits of willful LOL's when madly scribbling notes for a review during a performance -- this one the final preview June 12 before its official opening June 13. In the case of CoE, however, I took precious few notes because I was so fixated on the rollicking mainstage spectacle unfolding 10 rows below.

Director Scott Bellis elected a "steampunk" motif as the play's backdrop : imagine the wizard ship in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea meeting up with Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times clockwork cogs all taking place in Quasimodo's bell tower. That should give you the feel of Pam Johnson's wizard set.

Not to be outdone -- and complementing immensely Johnson's set -- costume designer Mara Gottler brought her A-game for sure : championship designs for each and every character. Victorian ruffles & velvets & leathers meet hussy-striped cocktail corset get-ups & gartered stockings meet 1930's sci-fi headgear replete with space guns that blow bubbles. Add constant hazer smoke and faux cannons used as poofter weapons and the nutty design antics are complete.

Bellis coached his principals well indeed in the need for Pace, pace, pace! to keep the madcap nonsense clipping forth mirthfully. Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg blocked her charges with split-second entrances, exits and mock beatings that fight director Nicholas Harrison helped the troupe execute crisply throughout the night.

Character hi-lites galore : Huzzah's and Shazam!'s to the entire cast for an evening of delightful carrying-on, no question, not one weak link in the chain of 14 actors scurrying about.

But for this reviewer it is the pairing of Luisa Jojic and Ben Elliott as the Syracusa pair who drive the action, particularly Jojic as the increasingly put-upon Dro.S who is pummelled mercilessly Keystone Cops style by her master. Her sassy snap-backs and double-takes toward Ant.S are simply superb.

Andrew McNee triple-bills as executioner, Balthasar the coke-snorting friend of Ant. E (Jay Hindle), but best of all as the disgustingly greasy and "spherical" Nell, cook to Ant. E's wife Adriana (Sereana Milani). Nell's hot hot hot for Dro.S who finds her gross and dodges each grab artfully. [In the end Dro.E (Dawn Petten) saves her sister from further torment by a timely smooch.]

Mention is necessary of Ant. S's gap-mouth'd drools over Adriana's sister Luciana (Lindsey Angell), too. They are priceless as they seduce one another under the watchful eye of a carnivorous Venus fly-trap on the garden trolley. At play's end, meanwhile, Hindle's Ant. E exculpatory pleadings to the Duke (Jeff Gladstone) in a lengthy and lugubrious soliloquy earned him hearty and deserved handclaps, his most compelling moments of the night. For his part, Andrew Cownden as the goldsmith wins the elocution and projection prize, hands down.

Who gonna like : Judging by the responses heard in the exits, no one not gonna like. As a general caveat, Shakespeare does work best when one has the time and luxury to read the script ahead-of-time rather than face his Elizabethan tongue and imagery and poetic tale-spinning utterly unprep'd. Still, the sheer visual richness and antic acting of this performance will bridge most language or comprehension gaps and make them largely irrelevant.

Also, it's not a plot spoiler to know in advance that Ant. S sports a white shock of hair on the right side of his scalp, while Ant. E has a matching one but on the left side. Same idea with the Dromios : Dro. S has a leather knee patch on her left knee and hoists a messenger bag on her right shoulder, while Dro. E's patch and bag are the opposite. These clues help unclutter the scattergun rapid-fire Billy Bard dialogue and identity mix-ups that are the core of all the nonsense.

Professor Rowse tells us: "We happen to know that [CoE] was performed at a Grand Night at Gray's Inn on 28 December 1594, amid much rowdy junketing that added more confusion to that presented in the play." Learning that, Director Bellis-&-Crew deserve an extra shout-out and a round of snaps because I have to imagine WS's Gray's Inn production was no less goofy and silly and just-plain-fun than this re-mount now some 420+ years after the first partyers drank it all in back then. Sheer giggly refreshing fun for sure !

Particulars :  Now on until September 26 at the BMO mainstage at Vanier Park. Run-time approx. 140 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission. Tickets & schedules for the repertory performances with Bard's three other plays via or by phoning the box office at 604.739.0559.

Production crew :  Artistic Director Christopher Gaze.  Director Scott Bellis.  Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Scenery Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Sound Designer Malcolm Dow.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.  Fight Director Nicholas Harrison.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Kelly Barker.  Apprentice Stage Manager Alexandra Shewan.  Apprentice Director Amanda Lockitch.  Set Design Apprentice Elizabeth Wellwood.

Peformers :  Lindsey Angell.  Lili Beaudoin.  Scott Bellis.  Andrew Cownden.  Daniel Doheny.  Ben Elliott.  Josh Epstein.  Anna Galvin.  Jeff Gladstone.  Jay Hindle.  Luisa Jojic.  Sereana Malani. Andrew McNee.  Dawn Petten. 


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