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!

The unsettling errors of Abrahams’ “Big Business”

This fall the Court Theatre, the professional theatre at the University of Chicago, is mounting a production of The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, helmed by avant-garde director Sean Graney. Because he is noted for dynamic and unconventional staging, I was interested to see how this play had any film history. Low and behold, outside the Kenneth Branagh oeuvre I found reference to a Jim Abrahams comedy featuring Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler based on Shakespeare’s play, called Big Business (1988). The film’s vested interest seems to be not in the relationships or struggle for identity at the center of Shakespeare’s play, but uses the trope of multiple twins and body switches in order to juxtapose the glorified and pastoralized fictional town of Jupiter Hollow to the gratuitous evil of New York City—and yet the entire film takes place in the Plaza Hotel at the heart of the “evil” city.

Lily Tomlin, playing both twins Rose Ratliff and Rose Shelton, epitomizes love of the picket-fence country mystique. In fact, her bumpkin Beau Roone Dimmick (Fred Ward) is allowed to monologue to the homosexual corporate executives on the beauty and values of Jupiter Hollow. Encased by the concrete jungle, Roone’s audience “ooh” and “aww” while he asks for his sushi to be thrown back in the fryer. Throughout the film the city is demonized all the while the characters enjoy the fruits of New York luxury: the anti-urban rhetoric becomes somewhat deafening. In fact, Lily Tomlin’s characters are rarely seen without some luxurious food item in hand, and she is often mocked for “making love to the desert cart.”

The film goes to great lengths to cultivate stereotypical New York snobbery in contrast to the pastoral dialogue. This is epitomized in a scene in which the bumpkin half of Bette Midler’s character, Sadie Ratliff (mirrored by Moramax company president and socialite Sadie Shelton), tries to hail a cab. Countless times does she succeed, but only to have it nabbed from her by other New Yorkers. Finally she hits a man over the head with her purse in order to keep her cab; the camera shows the man smiling in approval at her big-city gumption as the cab streaks off with Sadie finally inside. While the film doesn’t seem to end with a vote explicitly for any particular lifestyle, both sets of sister get the lifestyle they desire. The merits of the city are never explicitly touted, and the film feels ideologically lopsided in part because of this.

In general, this film feels more like a collision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Errors in the way it deals with relationships. All four sisters eventually trade up their complicated romantic relationships for each other’s—and it is no surprise that they are all heteronormative. Riffing on play that purposefully puns on narrative structure and the inherent plot holes that result, the most confusing and unsettling hole left by the film is the exchange of these relationships in the last scene of the film. Both of Bette Midler’s characters are big-city women and one gets an Italian mogul and the other the formers divorcée. Rose Shelton (the reformed big-city girl but rustic at heart) gets her twin Rose Ratliff’s boyfriend, bumpkin Roone, in exchange for the formers doctor beau. Note: both men attempt to propose marriage to the wrong Rose in the course of the film.

This swapping of rejected or would-be spouses is one of the many unsettling elements of the film. If the doctor (Michael Gross) was willing to propose marriage to one Rose, is it so easy to believe he would be so quick to let her go for a more parochial look-alike? Are we to assume there would be nothing odd about one Sadie adopting the other Sadie’s ex-husband (Barry Primus) on the only premise that she is a much better mother than her twin? These relationships seem a little too complicated, with a little too much emotional baggage, to just be counted as another body switch.

There are two typical Shakespearean plot elements that, interestingly enough, have nothing to do with the source texts. First, there are no parents present whatsoever in the majority of the film, although references are made to marriage and wanting children. CEO Sadie has a spoiled son named Sly, but she shows little interest in him. In Shakespeare’s version, parents frame the narrative of the play, and ends with a reunion between spouses and one set of children. (The Dromio slave twins never meet there parents and no one seems concerned about it either.) Secondly, is the inclusion of the well-meaning hotel desk clerk who has a little fling with bumpkin Sadie is left un-partnered by the end of the film, and serves as another site for irresolution. Inspired to take action and pursue Sadie, he does so only to get punched. At the sight of triplets, the same desk clerk passes out, which may have been an attempt by the director to provide some resolution for a character with no doppelganger. His character still sticks out like a sore thumb and would have been best treated like a Malvolio-type from Twelfth Night, which would have given the film a dark comedic edge.

These last scenes, driven home hard by a remark made by the token New York homeless man, suggest we all have a double or other half out there. Is that the big message we are supposed to get out of the film? Is that the point? It rings a bit empty because all of these unsettling and irreconcilable elements have no payoff—like an episode of The Office gone horribly awry. The film opened to lukewarm reviews although it did go on to earn more than $40 million at the domestic box office. Despite the efforts of Tomlin and Midler, the film fails to resonate except for reinforcing especially well worn and distasteful stereotypes of the late 1980s.

Beyond the entertainment value, Big Business fits snuggly in the canon of twentieth century adaptations of Errors that seem to implicitly argue that the play, as it stands, is a simple and unimaginative farce which only works when so many additional periodic trappings. This is an artistically disingenuous move, most evident in the pivotal moment in the film where Sadie and Rose meet their other halves in the hotel bathroom that not even expert comic actresses or improved special effects could save. The problem in this film is not casting or script—which in truth has a few sparkling quips delivered by Bette Midler—but really plot. Where Shakespeare’s play seems to poke fun at the problematics of regimented and formulaic writing, Big Business suffers from those same problems in the perennial but often stagnant Romantic Comedy genre.

While markedly more enjoyable and more thoroughly aware of its source material and led by noted director Barbara Gaines, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s recent staging of Errors also felt it was necessary to add an additional metatheatrical plotline. Set on “the fictional English movie set of Shepperton Studios in the midst of the London blitz to film” Shakespeare’s play, at least this production showed a concern for lost and found identities and kept some crucial elements that make the farce of exponential twins work.

Graney has a penchant for chopping and rearranging, often criticized for being more in love with his dramatic shtick than the play as a holistic performative experience. However, he is a strong reader of early modern drama, if his production of Edward II is any indication, and his dramatic aesthetic sells tickets. The Court is one of the most innovative companies in Chicago right now; their production of Titus Andronicus changed the way I thought about performance and the theatre experience. It will be interesting to see if Graney will follow the trend of problematically adding to Errors plot as a justification to make valuable, or if he will offer an even more paired-down and stylized adaptation working with the complexities this play already offers—something far riskier and potentially far more innovative than any adaptation could offer.