For many people, watching Shakespeare is like running through the snow and jumping into a hot tub. The reaction your body has to this sudden shift isn’t unexpected, but the physical response can be unpleasant. It stings, but you do get used to it with time, and by the end, it may even be pleasurable, so long as you don’t stay in it too long.
Even I, someone who is decently well-versed in Shakespeare, can find the thought of sitting down for a two or three-hour play somewhat daunting. There’s almost always an element of “alright, let’s do this” before I step into the theater, the way I imagine Tom Cruise feels before he jumps out of a plane.
It was that very feeling that was coursing through my veins as I sat down for my first play this season at the Stratford Festival, The Comedy of Errors, a play that I had never seen or read before, that was receiving mixed reviews.
‘The Comedy of Errors’: A Review
A Plot Worthy of its Title
The plot is simple enough and contains enough classic Shakespeare plot points that you might get a sense of deja vu. A master from Syracuse, Antipholus, and his servant, Dromio arrive at the Greek city, Ephesus. What they don’t know is that both of them are twins, accidentally separated at birth, and that their counterparts, also named Antipholus and Dromio, are master and servant in this very town. So alike to their twin counterparts are Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse that they are immediately mistaken for Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, not just by the townsfolk, but by one another as well.
Does it strain credulity that these brothers and sisters would be so identical that they would be constantly mixed up? Yes. Is it a little contrived that they even share the same names? Of course. Is it even remotely believable that they would arrive wearing exactly the same clothes? Not at all, but this is Shakespeare and you have to go with it.
If these beats sound familiar, it’s because Shakespeare would later recycle them into Twelfth Night, and while I hesitate to call that play “more successful,” it certainly is more often performed. And like Twelfth Night, the first act of this play is entirely table setting. As a result, the first thirty minutes or so of this comedy aren’t what you would call funny. Indeed, the play begins with a man condemned to death expositing all relevant information and begging for his life. Not exactly ‘ha ha’ funny. But when the play digs into the absurdity and actually manages to get some speed up, it becomes a riot.
There are few writers better than Shakespeare at building plot upon plot for comedic effect (the holy trinity being Shakespeare, the late John Hughes, and the even later Oscar Wilde). People give jewelry to the wrong Antipholus, and later demand payment from the other. Antipholus will demand Dromio run off in search of money and is flabbergasted when another Dromio returns with rope. The play descends into finger-pointing and “he said/she said” until everyone is in jail, and women are declaring love to their wife’s sisters. If this all sounds improbable to you, I invite you to look up the word ‘farce.’
The Errors in the Comedy
Does it all work? No. The play has its stumbles. As lenient as I am willing to be with the plot, it is a lot to ask at times. Beryl Bain and Josue Laboucane play the Dromios. One is a short black woman, and the other is a pale, portly man and you would have to be blind and deaf to mix the two.
The costumes by Kimberly Catton reminded me of Gabriella Pescucci’s dynamic, some would say “overly-produced,” work on Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And I can’t help but wonder if they were supposed to be viewed from farther away. The Tom Patterson Theater, a staple of these plays in the past, was recently demolished to make room for a new playhouse, and instead, this play is held at The Studio, easily the most intimate of Stratford’s theaters.
And then, of course, there is the gender-bending dynamic, added to the play by director, Keira Loughran. The play begins with a man as a judge in garters and a dress. No, he wasn’t running late after Rocky Horror Show, this is what you’re in for and if you don’t like it, it won’t get better.
I, however, found it amusing. In the play as written, the Antipholus twins are both brothers, but here they are brother/sister. Same goes for the Dromios. As a result, there is an added layer of humor, when Antipholus’ wife thrusts herself intimately and unknowingly upon her husband’s twin sister, and while some may find it as slightly transphobic or insensitive, I found it funny enough. I’m not sure the play has much to say about gender fluidity. The play doesn’t really take a stand on the subject, but it’s a harmless addition which seems to have stuck in the craw of some audiences.
Last Word on ‘The Comedy of Errors’
The best adaptations of Shakespeare understand that the play, holy writ to some, is merely a Christmas tree, and it is the ornaments you place on it that make the play special. Swapping genders won’t make this play, but it won’t destroy it either, and it adds enough to make it more than “just another production.”
Moreover, it’s hard to fault the production for this choice when it produces teams like Qasim Khan & Josue Laboucane and Jessica B. Hill & Beryl Bain. Hill, in particular, is delightfully capable of the physical comedy required for the role, as well as the wide-eyed wonder, and sometimes horror, at the events that unfold around her. And Alexandra Lainfiesta throws herself into every scene as Adirana, Antipholus’ perplexed wife.
There is a tone to Shakespeare, specifically to Shakespearean comedies, and more specifically to Shakespearean comedies on stage. And it is a tone that is difficult to grasp. There is a broadness to the physical humor that has to blend with the lyricism of the words, and while the body language in this play may come across as too broad to be allowed, I found it effective.
As I said before, this was the first play of the season for me, but it also carried added significance, since this was the first time I brought my wife to Stratford. I was on tenterhooks before the show. But in the end, we both left with smiles on our faces. It’s hard not to with a play this charming.
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