WIL Festival 5.2: “The Comedie of Errors”

 The Original Practice Shakespeare Festival performance of “The Comedie of Errors” was an all-female cast. I wrote a few weeks ago, in response to a Globe and Mail article, about the importance of gender parity in Shakespeare-oriented companies. I have also discussed in two recent WIL Fest posts (here and here) about the ways in which women playing male roles as either male or female characters is in keeping with the spirit of repertory system as well as the gender theory of the period from whence they come. One might say, an all-female cast is as accurate as the all-male casts of the Renaissance.

A benefit of working in repertory is that the plays placed side-by-side can speak to each other. Put in close proximity, they can suggest themes and ideas that might be otherwise subsumed by other aspects of the plays. An all-female “Errors” is a smart move to follow “The Taming of the Shrew”: it gave actual women agency to make performance choices within their peer group immediately after a play nearly impossible to find female empowerment. While actors routinely play against a character’s assigned gender, here nearly half of this cast chose to play their role as men, including Kelsea Ashenbrenner (as the officer), Isabella Buckner, Amy Driesler, Lissie Lewis, Sullivan Mackintosh, and Shandi Muff. What this implies to me is that cross-gender casting and cross-gender performances have become commonplace for the company: it is simply part of the system in which they work. What did it do for William Shakespeare’s shortest play?

From left: Isabella Buckner (Dromio of Syracuse), Shandi Muff (Antipholus of Syracuse), Sarah Jane Fridlich (Luciana), Shani Harris-Bagwell (Adriana), and Emilie Landmann (Angelo the Goldsmith).


 Two sets of identical twins, masters (Antipholus) and servants (Dromio), were separated by shipwreck. Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus and Adriana mistakes him for her husband (E. Antipholus). S. Antipholus gets a gold chain E. Antipholus ordered, but then E. Antipholus is arrested for not paying. Confusion reigns until Antipholus’ parents are found. [From the playbill.]

Interesting Interruptions

 One of the darlings of theatre criticism at the moment, Marvin Carlson, has two really interesting books on the ways in which we use our memories when we watch theatre. His recent Shattering Hamlet’s Mirror: Theatre and Reality (University of Michigan Press, 2016) explores the ways theatre has conscripted “reality” into the meaning-making process over the last century. Using Hamlet’s allusion to Socrates as an organizing conceit, each chapter considers the theatre’s turn away from mimesis to the appropriation of the “real,” including borrowing words; the body of the actor; the affordances and connotations of physical surroundings; the prop—recalcitrant, animate, and otherwise; and, eventually, the audience itself.

From left: Sarah Jane Fridlich (Luciana) and Shani Harris-Bagwell (Adriana).

Shakespeare in the Park performances of any stripe are often the best places to see this conscription of the environment in action. I’ve talked about it in different ways, such as asking for a prompt (“Where am I?”) in “The Tempest” highlights the fiction of the island in the play. Playing in rep across several city parks gives OPS Fest many opportunities to experiment with new spaces and practice the skill of appropriating the materials they afford. For example, Willamette Park is also the site of a busy boat launch area on the southeast part of Portland. In the afternoon, it’s noisy.

PROMPTER (Beth Yocam): There’s a lot of boat stuff going on right now (referring to the loud honking and music coming off of the Willamette River). Antipholus, could you tell us how you got to this island?

There is something about drawing attention to the surroundings that performers and audience share which connects the two groups as a one community. It highlights a limit of theatre: sometime the fact of the performance is constrained by the volume of a honk or bark. It also implies a kind of hope that the audience with continue to play along with you, letting their imaginations convert the hip-hop from a party speed-boat to merchant sailors singing as they pull in to Ephesus.

Clever Cues

 Prompting today was company manager Beth Yocam, who has been with the troupe from the very beginning. She seemed to smell a possible joke to build on with the boat interruptions. When things again got busy, she started interrupting each of the characters at their first entrance, asking what they have been doing all this while. (You realize how many characters are introduced relatively late in this early play.) It started after this line:

Go bear it to the Centaur, where we host,
And stay there, Dromio, till I come to thee.

The Centaur refers to a pub, following the naming tradition of most early modern pubs. In The Canterbury Tales, the pilgrims start off from a tavern named The Tabard. (Click here for more on historic pubs and their signage.) Pretty soon, it seemed like everyone had been drinking and wiling away the time at the Centaur, somehow without seeing one another. This developing side-story (a) built-out a sense of the city of Ephesus in the world of the play, (b) underscored the fallibility of some of the characters, that they might be lying to us, and (c) winked at the fact that William Shakespeare’s plays aren’t perfect, and that’s a good thing.

From left: Isabella Buckner (Dromio of Syracuse) and Shandi Muff (Antipholus of Syracuse).

Distilling Dramaturgy

There are many companies across the country that specialize in all-female Shakespeare performances, such as the work of Phyllida Lloyd and the company, Smooth Faced Gentlemen. It is important work considering the recent election and ongoing gender inequity at all strata of American education and commerce. These are not the only ways to address a woman’s point-of-view in a Shakespeare production, however, as a quick quip by Muff demonstrated:

S. ANTIPHOLUS: Then she bears some breadth?
S. DROMIO (Isabella Buckner): No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out
countries in her.
S. ANTIPHOLUS: (breaking from character in an aside) Strap-in, folks, we have some serious fat-shaming coming up. Triggers.

I have to admit, this is one of the funniest scenes in the play for me. It capitalizes on audiences memories of different locations around the world (and stereotypes about them) in order to make bawdy jokes. What I hadn’t realized until watching this all-female cast was that this series of one-liners is at the expense of a woman, and more importantly, one we never meet. She gets no stage time to defend herself, not to mention she is the butt of a joke not of her own making. Admittedly, Falstaff—coming up tomorrow!—bears the brunt of a great deal more fat jokes, but he is given ample time to not only defend himself, but give as good as he gets. The point here is that, you don’t necessarily need a play about women or performed by women to think about women…but it helps.

From left: Sarah Jane Fridlich (Luciana), Shani Harris-Bagwell (Adriana), Amy Driesler (Antipholus of Ephesus), Sullivan Mackintosh (Dromio of Ephesus), Isabella Buckner (Dromio of Antipholus), and Shandi Muff (Antipholus of Syracuse).

 Ready for more? Up tomorrow, Sunday, 30 July, at Willamette Park:

2:00PM “Twelfe Night”
7:00PM “1 Henry IV”

Interested in chatting about anything you read here on the blog or about the shows you are seeing at WIL Fest? Do feel free to come find me and chat! I’ll be in a blue OPS Fest t-shirt, red lawn shirt, taking copious notes! You can also follow along with the hashtags #OnlyAtOPS on Twitter and Instagram.

  • The WIL Festival, presented by the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, runs 21 July to 6 August 2017. These will be rotation between the Portland parks of Willamette, Irving, and Laurelhurst, so check the online calendar for details.
  • Free and open to the public, a green bucket is passed around after the show for donations. Want to donate online? Contribute to the Indiegogo campaign going on right now, and get some cool swag, too!
  • Note that this is an outdoor performance, so do bring a lawn chair, beach chair, blanket, or other seating option. There is usually ample free parking in the parks themselves, as well as on the street in the nearby neighborhoods. Do watch-out for boats near the river launches.

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