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!

“that which knitteth souls and prospers loves”: A Midwinter Dreame

Modular 1980 Christmas card, designed by C. Walter Hodges, for the Detroit Project.

This post inaugurates a new series here on Bite Thumbnails explicitly dedicated to the Portland-area first folio technique company, the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival (OPS Fest). As their new (and first) scholar-in-residence, I will be both charting their performances as well as observing their methods of rehearsal and production toward my own research on playing companies, early modern dramaturgy, and the repertory system. What better way that to start with my favorite, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—with a yuletide twist!

But first, what do we mean by “first folio technique”? There is a school of thought that the First Folio – the first collated copy of works by William Shakespeare published in 1623 – contains clues as to how lines might be delivered. Such clues involve capitalization, use of punctuation, and spelling that many modern editors have taken to be typos or didn’t adhere to rhyming norms of the time. Some tricky factors include:

  • not all of the plays we associate with Shakespeare were in the first folio.
  • scholars and performers are still working out original pronunciation (example) and its effects on end rhyme.
  • the folios of the seventeenth century had their own editors, including Ralph Crane, who arguably “fixed” as many of the typological elements as modern editors. Quartos, the earlier, single-text printing of plays, may be actually closer to the original performances than the folios, but often have multiple competing versions of plays for a number of reasons (playing companies, printers, pirates, et cetera).

While acknowledging these and other elements, first folio techniqueone of a number of original practices increasingly in use by companies like Shakespeare’s Globe in London and the American Shakespeare Centermakes a Shakespearean play sing off the page for actors and audiences in ways totally unlike other approaches.

OPS Fest’s performance of A Midwinter Night’s Dream, that added sugar plum to a play of fairies for a one-night-only winter solstice event, highlights what stands out about their approach. (In a similar way, A Muppet Christmas Carol playfully highlights what we have to gain from omniscient narration in a ghost story.) The production is their only one during the rainy season, with slightly modified text and performed indoors at Portland Metro Arts. For me, the seasonal setting brought together two crucial concerns of the play: festive time and the first folio.

The lovers (from left: Kaia Maarja Hillier, Colin Kane, Alec Lugo, Jessica Hirschhorn) try to sort out their muddled memories.

Midsummer was first performed to celebrate a wedding in a noble house in the mid-1590s. It is a play about and for festive time. According to scholar Erika Lin,

In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, holidays were often celebrated with dancing, music, athletic combat, informal roleplaying, and scripted drama. In the professional theatres, however, these same activities functioned not as communal rituals but as commodified entertainments.

With festive time in mind, Midsummer seems particularly ripe for revision as as Midwinter entertainment. Titania (Isabella Buckner) and Oberon (David Bellis-Squires) became Susan and Nicholas Claus. Both campaign to the audience over who should keep the changeling boy with chocolate coins. The characters are citizens of Whoville rather than Athens. They eat and slowly disappear oversized candy canes over the course of the production. Some lines were cleverly modified (maintaining meter), such as:

  • “I have forsworn thy sled and company.”
  • “Not for thy whole toy factory!”
  • “Weeps every little snowflake.”
  • “Mrs. Clause, with a reindeer, is in love!”
  • Love-in-Idleness is a “little holly (rather than ‘western’) flower”
  • “Swifter than an icicle from the snow queen’s bow!”
  • “The Duke is come from the Nativity scene with two or three lords and ladies more!”

There was also unchanged text that simply rung differently in my ears given the holiday context. I frequently assign a devising essay in my theatre classes looking for just such things that can make an old text seem exigent again:

  • “How low am I, thou painted maypole?”
  • “All in jollity!”
  • “my heart unto yours is knit

The last, spoken by Lysander (Colin Kane), was impeded by an oversized green scarf wrapped around his face in something mimicking Randy from The Christmas Story.

Simultaneously inventive and hooked into the holiday (holy and festive) time of “its parent and original” was the troupe’s use of a prompter (Keith Cable) as an actual character on stage. Ostensibly, the prompter is provided as a monitoring peer (he wears a referee’s jersey) to provide missed cues and lines. Part of the first folio technique is going without rehearsal and using “rolls,” the printed part with two iambs of cue lines, while on stage. Based on current scholarship, this is most likely how all first “trials” or performances were conducted. The applause they received determined whether or not the company would invest costumes and rehearsal time into the production. (Likewise, according to Tiffany Stern, prologues and epilogues are artifacts of first performances and weren’t used after the fact.) With a prompter, a new level of meta-commentary about what theatre is capable of (or good for) is made available to us. Some examples:

  • Peter Quince, played by artistic director Brian Allard, missed his first substitution of “Whoville” for “Athens.” When stopped and corrected by the prompter, he moaned “That’s a new change, they just voted it in.” Bottome (David C. Olson) chimed in, “make Whoville great again” in reference to the recent election.  (The only other election quip, also by Bottome: “Truth and honesty keep little company these days – since the electoral college.”) Quince was disgruntled by the use of Whoville every time afterward, sharing a running joke with the audience.
  • When Hermia (Kaia Maarja Hillier) awakes and realizes she has lost Lysander, she has also lost her place in the script. She turns to the prompter for consolation, crying and dragging on his sleeve, collapsing the character’s distress over her lost love with the actor’s distress over a missed cue. Later, when Hermia dropped a cuenot a sign of unpreparedness but rather an aesthetic of the troupethe prompter quickly filled her in. She responded, “You get me!”
  • In another brilliant moment capitalizing on a dropped line, Mrs. Claus turns to the prompter to ask if he has her line. Not having that part of the script, he shakes his had. Santa turns to her, “I have a Christmas gift for you Susan: I’ll give you your line!”

In these moments, the prompter was integrated into the world of the play. He was fully a part of the action, commenting on playmaking in the same spirit as the lovers comment on the theatre of the rude mechanicals.

A crew of patches: Starveling (Beth Yocam), This Dog My Dog (Max Lewis), Snug (Emilie Landmann), Quince (Brian Allard), Flute (Brian Burger), Snout (Michael Streeter), and the prompter (Keith Cable) all lean in to hear Bottome (David C. Olson) weave his tale.

From a properly critical standpoint, I also got out of the production the kind of thing I hope to get from any Shakespeare performance: to hear an interpretation of a line or two I hadn’t yet developed a clear grasp of yet. For this performance, I had always wondered what exactly does a “sucking dove” sound like? And why would Bottome suggest a gentle lion would make that sound? David C. Olson performed a “cooing” noise with a rolled-“R” sound that gave me a brilliant reference point for where lion and dove meet in a soundscape. That, and never had I quite put together that nearly all of the major plot movements in the play are motivated by sexual rejection: the amazon Hippolyta of Theseus, Hermia of Demetrius, Titania of Oberon, and Demetrius of Helena. “Lovers, make moan” indeed!

My favorite moment, the moment that brought together the festive spirit of the nuptials for which the play was envisioned and holiday-making of Christmastime, was one you couldn’t have planned for. It seems all the more apropos considering OPS Fest lets you see the script. Starveling (Beth Yocam) was costumed as the Grinch, and her son (Max Lewis) played an implied part, This Dog My Dog, reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. Quite a little guy, he was kept near mom with a toddler harness, and when barking on cue, was rewarded with apples from Quince and the prompter. He stole the show not once but twice. First, in the wooded rehearsal, when Thisbe dies and falls to the ground in a tragic moment verging into real pathos, from the sidelines This Dog My Dog jumped out and suddenly mimicked the fall to great cheers and applause. Later, when in their performance before the duke and duchess, Starveling has her lines about moonshine and her doggy thornbush. Thisbe enters, to be scared away by the lion, and so too does Starveling run off. About to leave the stage with This Dog My Dog, he sees Thisbe’s mantle thrown in the air, and completely changes course for it exactly as a real dog or child might do!

At Bottome (David C. Olson) makes his finale, the lanthorn moon (Beth Yocam) and thornbush (Max Lewis) are an unexpectedly divided front.

While an exception to a number of their normal performance conditions and practices, A Midwinter Night’s Dreame brought together the potentials of original practices and festive time to make meaning. In six months, at the midsummer solstice, their full summer season will open, out-of-doors on a midnight hill, with A Midsummer Night’s Dreame, free to the public. Right about then I think we shall all need a dose of festive time again.

Modular 1980 Christmas card, designed by C. Walter Hodges, for the Detroit Project.

  • While this was a one-night only performance, it marks six months to the day of the opening of the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival (OPS Fest) season on midsummer’s day. Mark your calendars for 21 June 2017.
  • More photos of this performance are available via this gallery post.