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.

Get serious about “Shakespeare’s King Phycus”

When attempting to recommend Shakespeare’s King Phycus, the joint venture of The Chamberlain’s Men and the Strange Tree Group, the best way I found to describe the production is as a Shakespeare parody mash-up. Out of the wilds of Idaho, Tom Wilmorth’s metaplay not only makes great fun of popular assumptions about the Shakespeare canon but also our expectations of classical drama. This production is more of an experience than your normal “serious” dramatic performance, operating on a trifecta of staging, script, and performance that gesture to audiences’ self-awareness. This is unlike the typical modern theatre experience in which we sit in a dark hall where our silence is the canvas on which the actors perform and our applause is choreographed into the production itself and expected–our only control is to adjust the volume of our gratitude.

Upon entering the Building Stage performance space, you find yourself immersed in a semi-fabricated world. Lining the walls of the make-shift foyer are convincing faux-historical artifacts of original play scripts and photos of early performances by one Edwin Booth (brother to the notorious John Wilkes Booth). Included are contrasting critical claims as to the authenticity of Phycus as a very early Shakespeare play (whose timing could not be more perfect due to the recent publication and controversy over Double Falsehood). Just beyond the exhibit is tavern-like bar, built from the ground up by The Chamberlain’s Men. The detailed construction, which appears stolen from a Renaissance faire, features Goose Island Green Line Pale Ale donated by Blue Frog Bar and Grill. As an audience member, one is immediately thrust into an explicitly theatrical environment you will be a part of of throughout the performance.

King Phycus asks, “Do you see?” (StrangeTree.org)

Whether or not set designer Jay Neander was aware of early modern theatre practices, the production mirrors original techniques to fun effect. The audience sits on a built stage, with a little dais–crafted of recycled VHS tapes convincingly reconstructed to resemble brick and cobblestone–as the only division between performers and spectators. In fact, the entire set is repurposed with professional prop industry detail: lights made from beer bottles, Juliet’s balcony railing embellished with found objects such high heels, and parts of Starbucks to-go cups adorn the elevated boxes where busts of Queen Elizabeth and Abraham Lincoln spectate. The production company even used “green” advertising strategies, putting up mud stencil ads all over Chicago’s bypasses, bridges and sidewalks to get the word out.

The use of modern garbage to create a sixteenth-century set is only one way in which this production draws our attention to how our conceptions of theatre have changed over that time, sometimes to unreasonable degrees. Wilmorth’s script is as consistent as it is funny, and yet you don’t have to be a Shakespeare scholar to get the jokes. His prologue employs the audience member to use their “thinking caps to crown our kings,” nodding to the necessity of imagination and willful suspension of belief in any performance. Famous Shakespearean moments, such as the Ceasar’s death and the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, are torn to shreds for their grandiose inaccessibility. The childhood rhyme “sticks and stones may brake my bones” is put into iambic pentameter, and irony is taken to the next level when Alanis Morissette is invoked in a reference to Ceasarian architecture:

Isn’t it ionic … don’t you think?

The most clever scene is one in which a servant works to recreate darkness on a lit stage. No matter what question Hamlet (or Romeo, I cannot remember which it was, as the same actor plays both) asks his man, the only responses he receives are “I do not know, as it is very dark out.” This moment is brilliantly clever, mocking the expectations of us to imagine darkest night in such plays as MacBeth, where all but one scene takes place at night. The Globe performances typically took place in the early afternoon to cash in on the sunlight rather than playing for candles, while the more expensive Blackfriars playhouse used candle light but for an extra fee.

Discontented siblings Hamlet and Juliet (StrangeTree.org)

Such moments highlight necessary the expectations of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century audiences, but do not necessarily translate to the modern stage and it’s audiences. For example, only six actors play dozens of parts–some doing so by simply combing their hair in a different direction to signify change, to great comic effect. Aside from the staging and the script, the casting is particularly spot on, using workhorses from The Strange Tree ensemble, described by TimeOut Chicago as striking “just the right balance, merrily lobbing joke grenades with its trademark faux-earnestness.” One great example is when Goldenberg and Rosensteen arrive on stage as commedia dell’arte sketch comedians polling the audience for a topic on which to perform, earnestly mocking the Chicago theatre community that supports IO and Second City, among others. The ensembles sense of delivery really shapes the tone of the play and makes it worth the ticket price ($25).

Shakespeare parody and humor has been done before and almost ad nauseam at this point. Yet belaboring the issue of recycled costumes and all-to-quick wardrobe changes is funny in such a context. For example, Romeo, Brutus and Extranius all conspire over Caesar’s death by recreating a dance sequence from The Music Man, and hunch-backed Gloucester makes sure to include an expectant pause after every bad joke. The powers of staging, script and delivery combined, Shakespeare’s King Phycus is a clever and self-effacing production.

This production pokes fun at the status and stock invested in Shakespearean classical drama, and the impossible expectation that we might get all the nuances of four-hundred-year-old humor. And yet ticket sales for Shakespeare productions rarely wane. Aside from the post-modern humor, what is so interesting about Phycus is that the production is evidence that our culture is starting to rethink early modern dramatic composition as not what we assume. (At least we might be shifting that way if Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous, which considers the Shakespeare authorship controversy, doesn’t completely unravel these right notions.) In our post-modern, Simpsonesque sense of humor, Phycus is a great way to laugh with others at ourselves and the impossible expectations we have of “serious” entertainment.


2 AUG 2010 UPDATE: According to director Ira Amyx, there is considerable interest in sending this production to New York City in the summer of 2011. If you are interested in getting involved or contributing, please contact Ira. When attempting to recommend Shakespeare’s King Phycus, the joint venture of The Chamberlain’s Men and the Strange Tree Group, the best way I found to describe the production is as a Shakespeare parody mash-up. Out of the wilds of Idaho, Tom Wilmorth’s metaplay not only makes great fun of popular assumptions about the Shakespeare canon but also our expectations of classical drama. This production is more of an experience than your typical serious dramatic performance, operating on a trifecta of audience self-awareness. This is unlike the typical modern theatre experience in which we sit in a dark hall where our silence is the canvas on which the actors perform and our applause is choreographed into the production itself and expected–our only control is to adjust the volume of our gratitude.


An email from the playwright (foolsquad.com): “Dear Elizabeth, I enjoyed reading your dissection of Shakespeare’s King Phycus. It’s always refreshing to hear a scholarly voice analyzing Pull-My-Finger jokes. Well done. I’m glad you got to see the production. All best, Tom Willmorth” Thanks so much! I am glad you liked it!