Sunday, March 20, 2011

Slapstick Shakespeare

A delightful mariachi band greets the entering audience in the BAM Harvey Theatre. The scene is more like Tijuana than an ancient Roman/Greek city, but the pleasure of the setting overrides any purist hankerings. And of course, any purists in the audience of a Propeller production had best put on their seatbelts – they’re in for a bumpy ride, despite the all-male company.

In “The Comedy of Errors,” the errors are made by everyone in Ephesus about the identities of two sets of twins in their midst. The comedy is … rather brutal. Think “Animal House” via the Three Stooges. As a play, “The Comedy of Errors” is slight – a smidgen more than a one-joke show. That said, the vigor and energy and acrobatics of Propeller and the Touring Company in this production -- already sold out at BAM -- keeps its audience laughing for most of its two hours and odd minutes.

As with all the plays depending upon mistaken identity and twins, “The Comedy of Errors” must move swiftly so as to avoid the audience having a moment to think. The premise: Aegeon, a Syracusan merchant, had twin sons with his wife Aemelia. He bought another pair of twin boys to be their servants. Then they were separated by a storm at sea, leaving Aegeon with one of each (one son, one slave), and the mother missing with the other boys. Some twenty or thirty (depending on who’s speaking) years later, the father’s pair take on the names of their missing siblings and go off in search of them. That presents us with two characters named Antipholus, one of Syracuse, one of Ephesus, and two slaves named Dromio, ditto. As theatrics require, the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio arrive in Ephesus, and are immediately mistaken for their resident twins. No one figures this out, of course, until a tedious scene at the end. Many comedies require as much suspension of disbelief as a musical, and this is one of them.

That bit of backstory may appear long, but it is much shorter than the exposition the character Aegeon delivers in the painful opening of this play. Richard Clothier (an excellent Shylock in Propeller’s flawed production of “The Merchant of Venice” two years back) plays the Duke of Ephesus with marbles in his mouth. He and Aegeon (John Dougall) open the play with the exposition above, plus the overwrought trade war between Ephesus and Syracuse, slowing the pace the musicians had set. They almost lost the audience between being unintelligible and dull in their pseudo-realism in a farcical story. Luckily, as Aegeon spoke of his sons and slaves, the characters introduced themselves in a manner more befitting a farce by way of a window in the back wall. Two Antipholuses (Antipholi?), wearing identical costumes, two Dromios, wearing costumes identical to each other's as well.

This production by the madcap Propeller company, directed by Edward Hall, is non-stop hilarity of the juvenile and generally vulgar sort. Don’t get me wrong, I laughed like hell. Although I started disliking the Three Stooges decades ago, this company of players is so skilled at such antics – and clearly Shakespeare would never have tired of the Three Stooges – that my “matured” sense of humor was replaced with the puerile. This is a bawdy Elizabethan comedy via many, many stooges. Nonetheless, I consider the best part of the show to be the mariachi band (don’t think these are separate people – they’re members of the company who appear as characters as well) that sets the pace and tone from the get go, and comments on the action as a musical chorus ought.

What does this play need? Shortening. Cut the beatings by half and the lines by a quarter, and this difficult play could work for a broader audience. As it is, Propeller’s production moves swiftly, contains lots of laughs, excellent integration of musical humor, and some good performances, particularly:

- Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as the more charming Antipholus of Syracuse. Not that he doesn’t beat his Dromio, just not as much;
- Sam Swainsbury as the resident Antipholus of Ephesus, who is cruder, drunker, and has a fantastical long monologue to the Duke in the latter half of the play that is hilarious;
- Richard Frame as Dromio of Syracuse with the biggest, longest fat joke in the world;
- Jon Trenchard as Dromio of Ephesus, whose monologue “I am an ass indeed” becomes a dancelike solo as he enacts every blow dealt him by his master, mistress, and anyone else who feels like it;
- Robert Hands as Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, is very funny, way over the top, on occasion grating, but then so is Adriana;
- David Newman as Luciana, Adriana’s virginal sister who’s just as prone to violence as the rest of Ephesus. Newman’s interpretation is not at all virginal.
- Tony Bell as Pinch, a “conjurer” à la southern Evangelical con man. He had one of the most vulgar physical jokes of the evening, but handled himself well.

The players of Propeller are brazen, brave, clever, and talented actors and musicians. The play is, however, repetitive at best. Still, since most productions fall short, and this one keeps the energy high and thought processes minimal, I can safely say this is the best production of “The Comedy of Errors” I’ve seen.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read some Shakespearean verse


  1. Great review, DJ! We are great fans of Propeller and catch their productions whenever they are in town.

    We are seeing The Comedy of Errors on Thursday. I'll certainly think of your review as we watch their performance.

  2. I knew you were a 3 Stooges fan!! Have fun!

  3. Nah, not really. Marx Brothers all the way.

    In any event, fun shall be had!