OPS Fest: “The Comedy of Errors” in Salem, OR

Give her this key, and tell her, in the desk
That’s cover’d o’er with Turkish tapestry,
There is a purse of ducats; let her send it:
Tell her I am arrested in the street
And that shall bail me; hie thee, slave, be gone!
— Antipholus of Ephesus

This past weekend, the Original Practice Shakespeare Company (OPS Fest) started their pre-season run of performances with the Cherry Blossom Theatre Festival in the Oregon state capital, Salem. No literary allusion seems to be lost on this town: Gilgamesh Brewing was a major sponsor of the largely comedic offerings up at local venues, including the historic Elsinore Theatre. Despite the wonky space, the troupe reflected what worked and works well when borrowing from period techniques when performing in a long hall and surrounded by fruit.

From left: Sarah Jane Fridlich (Dromio of Ephesus), Alec Lugo (Solinus), and Keith Cable (Antipholus of Ephesus).

A word about the venue first is necessary. It is a ridiculous space–at least what I saw of it. The Sunday afternoon performance took place in the foyer of the venue, comprised of a long hall bookended by capacious staircases leading up to a mezzanine wrapping it way along the circumference of the room. The ceiling have been painted to effect the shape of faux-medieval church vaults, and the walls not covered in frescoes of Shakespearean images and quotations are painted to look like sandstone. Touch one of the wide columns in the room supposedly supporting the faux-vaults and you will hear the uncanny thunk of hollow plastic. We banquet-like tables were arranged throughout the space, covered adorned with plastic cherry blossoms and Pepto-Bismol-pink table cloths. I can appreciate the aspirations of the space, but it felt like being in a weird Baby-Boomer theme-park vision of a Ren Faire writ small.

From left: Kaia Maarja Hillier (Luciana), Shandi Muff (Adriana), and Beth Lewis (Aemilia).

That said, there were other aspects of the space and its relationship to the performance that we brilliant–whether the purveyors new it or not. It effected the same shape, intimacy, and movement of a Renaissance English guild hall: the kind of community space sponsored by the Carpenters or Goldsmiths of a town or region for meetings and networking. Touring playing companies depended upon such spaces when the weather was bad to make a living, and so had to adjust to whatever size and accoutrements were available. The one thing most guild halls shared in common with each other as well as with the Elsinore foyer were two main openings used as entrances and exits for both the actors and the food.

From left: Kaia Maarja Hillier (Luciana), Shandi Muff (Adriana), Keith Cable (Antipholus of Ephesus), Thomas Anders Witherspoon (Pinch), and Sarah Jane Fridlich (Dromio of Ephesus).

Billed as dinner theatre, there was an open-bar and buffet served at this performance of The Comedy of Errors. To get at it, you had to exit through the same doorway as the performers—making possible your interaction with (interpolation or interruption of) the performance. The echo of the large hall and the (unnecessary) reverence for the text meant these playgoers stayed in their seats for more often than moved about. For me, the more interruptions, that more the actors have to vie for attention, the more effective the Shakespeare seems to be. For example, in the course of the famous balcony comedy scene (made particularly potent by quick-changes when the Dromios are doubled), much is made of Antipholus bemoaning “I have not dined today.” This has an altogether new resonance when we we are all politely snacking and clinking wine goblets.

From left: Kaia Maarja Hillier (Luciana) and Shandi Muff (Adriana).

This is where the First Folio technique seemed to save the day. Without an audience willing to participate or interrupt the play, the Prompter (Joel Patrick Durham) feature provided another means by which to trouble the fourth wall. He was routinely tossed bananas by characters, who had nabbed them from the banquet table. At one point, a banana was delivered to him on the pregnant belly of Adriana (Shandi Muff). I have seen a few stage (here and here) and film versions of Errors, but never have I seen that particular choice. It completely transforms Adriana from a high-maintenance lady to an exasperated and struggling spouse. The temptation is high in this play to vilify her (even if unintentionally) for her ability to boss others about. Muff, taking her clues from the text rather than invention, finds a way to give stakes to Adriana’s anxiety.

The Dromios, from left: Sarah Jane Fridlich (Ephesus) and Lauren Kendall (Syracuse).

Unique to OPS Fest is their willingness to play games in the heart of these plays with their prompter. Thus far I have noted it only happens once or twice a show, and it is hysterical. On this night, the Prompter paused to play after Antipholus spoke the lines included as the epigraph to this post. The Prompter then asked about the others kinds of tapestries, aside from Turkish, that Antipholus owned. Having been under a huge painting of a scene from Macbeth (ironically with the lines ripped from an earlier play by Thomas Middleton, The Witches) all afternoon, Cable used the scenery as inspiration for his tale about the McDougal crest tapestry Antipholus owns, how it came to him by way of a Turkish merchant, and so on until stopped by the Prompter. It was a lovely moment both funny, creative, and appealed to audience members with a breadth of Shakespeare plays in their memories. (Oregon audiences seem to be particularly canny in this regard, no doubt in part due to the culture of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.) This kind of playfulness, linking the space to the text and then to its audiences, seems deeply connected to the spirit of those early fifteenth and sixteenth century playing companies looking for a guildhall to play and hide from the rain.

Interested in seeing what First Folio technique looks like? Needing a does of Shakespeare in your spring? Check out the First Night performances of Julius Caesar this weekend at Portland Metro Arts. Saturday at 6PM and Sunday at 2PM — for free!

Love is a Football Field: Pacific University’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

A mask tells us more than a face.
—Oscar Wilde

There is something completely delicious about Pacific University’s production of Much Ado About Nothing up, this weekend only, at the Tom Miles Theatre in Forest Grove, Oregon. No doubt it helps that some of my students are in the show, and that I have been a long-time fan of director Austin Tichenor’s The Reduced Shakespeare Company. But I suspect it is more than that. The conceit, setting William Shakespeare’s play at a 1950s homecoming dance after a major football victory, is one of those rare examples of “Shakespeare made fit”—where the thematic cornerstones of the play square neatly with the cultural concerns of a new place and time.

Vice Principle Dogberry (Mari Cobb) sets her troupe of teachers (from left: Brennan Staffieri, Alexis Zmuda, Jojo Miller) to guard the halls during the school dance.

¶ For example, the high school setting neatly contains the activity and provides a justification for our equivalent of a masque. The camaraderie shared by Don Pedro (Trevor Harter), Claudio (Matt Gauss), and Benedict (Josh Hauser) is made overt by their team mentality. The dance also gives occasion for the song, “Sign No More,” which is transformed here into a student band’s rock tune led by Pedro—smacking of something between Jack Black and John Belushi. With the rest of the cast dancing and ringing the band, the essential sense of community—that these relationships go way back—is made clear. My favorite twist was re-conceiving Constable Dogberry as a Vice Principle (Mari Cobb); it is the best correlation I can think of to link the policing mechanism necessary to discover the culprits but also maintain the absurdity of a disciplinarian without actual power. The gender-flip, to have the part played by a woman as a woman, makes the line “as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina” have actual meaning rather a confusion we ignore. Likewise, as Seacoal, Alexis Zmuda kills with comedic timing: set at a typewriter VP Dogberry asks that she write the confession. Zmuda takes her time plodding in each letter. When the statements get longer, her desperation increases and humor ensues.

Donna John (Jenna Cady) gives Conrade (Siddharth Raj) the what-for.

¶ There were other rich re-gendering of characters, the most productive of which was having Donna John (Jenna Cady) and Borachia (Haley McKinnon) played by and as women. For the former, Cady was costumed in a punk-goth black skirt trimmed with leather, tights, and crunchy Doc Martin’s. The tension between Donna John and Don Pedro as siblings is not an issue of bastardy, as in the source script, but here is one of gendered imbalance. Presumably, Donna John is in the same place as Hero: bored by waiting for a husband to whom to transfer her inheritance. It’s a version of Don John whose motives I can piece together and with whom I can sympathize. Likewise, Borachia complicates the perceived infidelity of hero. Her relationship with Margaret is pursued openly at the dance, with disapproving looks from other characters. She maintains female gender pronouns, but her tailored jacket, cap, and leather pant makes it easy to imagine that it is a man in the silhouette she makes with Margaret to trick Claudio. In a compelling reversal from the original script, it is not Margaret in one of Hero’s dresses that tricks the men, but rather Borachia in man’s attire.

Dean Leonata (Paige Kester), Claudio (Matt Gauss), and Don Pedro (Trevor Harter) plant the see of love in Benedict’s (Josh Hauser) ear.

The production is full of such moments: small changes both informed by the spirit of Shakespeare’s text but find new ways to make that spirit clear to its 2017 playgoers. One of the big challenges in the play, for me, is what to do with Hero so easily taking Claudio back after his violence and slander. Wittington, as Hero, makes a smart choice to grab Claudio by the face and exert a little threat of her own, carving out a moment of agency otherwise not made available by the text. Another crucial moment (producing the greatest amount of laughter) was the approach to the famous Arbour Scene, wherein Benedict overhears his fellow footballers discuss Beatrice’s ostensible love for him. Rather than a garden, he is shoved and slammed over and over again into lockers. Once the crew leaves, a far door opens to reveal a battered Benedict—but it is unclear whether he has been struck dumb by love or lockers.

Beatrice (Elise Dixon) and Benedict (Josh Hauser) reveal more than they might want despite being masked.

Ultimately, all these smart evolutions and ensemble efforts are for nought if your Bea and Ben aren’t ready to duke it out in this battle of the sexes. Tall and expressive, both Elise Dixon and Josh Hauser tower over the rest of the cast, buoyed  by the speed of their wit and compelling execution of their stichomythia. Hauser, with his extensive choral background, played with dynamics and elocution throughout, but especially in his soliloquies. It is a tough balance to speak directly to your watchers while conveying the sense that you are actively working through a problem. Soliloquies are about interiority, after all: there is no one onstage but you, talking to yourself. Dixon found that sweet spot between sardonic and shrill, cultivating a Beatrice with whom we sympathize and yet always invite to the party—never alienated by her rapier wit. In a world where we grapple with “resting Bitch face,” cat calling, and “binders full of women,” watching this Beatrice negotiate male expectations while refusing to be inauthentic to herself can only and always be a breath of fresh air.

  • Pacific University‘s production of Much Ado About Nothing plays in the Tom Miles Theatre on the Forest Grove campus 16 – 19 March 2017.
  • Admission is $8 general; $5 students, faculty, staff, alumni; and are available at the door or online here.
Director Austin Tichernor captures an #OscarSelfie with cast and crew of “Much Ado About Nothing.”