A friend once said to me, “Keep this a secret, but I don’t understand Shakespeare.”
I replied, “Neither do I.” For everyone who shares this problem, “The Comedy of Errors,” playing from January 25 to March 6 at The Folger Theatre, will help you to better know the Bard.
Folger Theatre, located in the Folger Shakespeare Library — home to one of the world’s largest Shakespeare collections — is a go-to venue for D.C.’s art and theater lovers. Since 1992, with its red wooden chairs, Shakespeare quotations carved on the ceiling and medieval-looking ornaments, this stage has been the closest we Georgetown students can get to Stratford-upon-Avon.
“The Comedy of Errors,” a farcical comedy, is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works. It tells the story of a family torn apart by a shipwreck. The father, Egeon of Syracuse, arrives to the city of Ephesus to look for his long-lost son and wife. Worried about his estranged father, who never comes back to Syracuse, Egeon’s son Antipholus takes a voyage to Ephesus with his servant Dromios. However, Antipholus has an identical twin. Both are unaware of each other’s existence, resulting in a highly entertaining chain of events from theft and madness to seduction and possession by spirits.
Acclaimed director Aaron Posner took on the arduous role of directing and presenting this play, originally written to entertain Londoners in 1594, to contemporary audiences. He aims to conserve the essence of the play but make it appeal to 21st century eyes and minds. For this purpose, he creates “a play within a play,” making innovative use of masks, setting and sound.
The play starts with a documentary on the troupe that acts the play out. The audience is exposed to typical, but highly convoluted, relationships, among the troupe members, who also happen to be each other’s husbands, wives and parents. The director’s addition of this layer — a play within a play — aims to draw a parallel with the plot, to emphasize the masks we all wear, whether we are on stage or not. The documentary manages to entertain the audience through its contemporary humor and its satirical view of relationships, family and art. Its attempt to integrate with the essence of the plot, however, is weak. Unfortunately, it serves only as a means of temporary entertainment, failing to become fully a part of the experience.
The director does excel in his use of masks, sound and setting to reach his innovative goals. The sound and setting are very effective in creating the desired atmosphere. Eleven colorful doors serve as the elements of set design, mimicking English town architecture, allowing for efficient use of space and providing room for unrestrained farcical humor.
The music also is brilliant. Jesse Terill performs his originally composed music live on stage. He is an actor playing violin, xylophone and percussion instruments, rather than talking. He highlights jokes with drum kicks, helps the character Aewhrio confess his love with his violin’s tune and even makes fun of Dromios with his xylophone. He turns music into an indispensable part of the story.
The use of masks, inspired by an Italian style of comedic theater, not only makes two actors appear identical, allowing them to take on different roles, but also draws attention to the concepts of identity and honesty.
The use of masks accomplishes its objective particularly in the case of Antipholus and Dromios, who were supposed to look identical. Dromios’ colossal ears, combined with his role as a messenger, obnoxious garrulity and charismatic gesticulations help to create a stronger character. Not all characters benefit from the effects mask usage; in fact, masks can change the entire atmosphere of a play.
The importance of creative directing in farcical comedies is indisputable. However, the real burden falls on the actors’ shoulders, especially for a small cast with big things to accomplish.
From the beginning to the very end, the everlasting energy radiated by every actor is striking. However, I felt irritated with Adriana (Suzanne O’Donnell), particularly when she goes through an emotional crisis, signifying her character’s transformation. But credits go to Dirk Boon and Nat Boon, who portrayed Dromios. The Dromios, with their short pants, striped socks and enormous ears were the highlight of the play. They were all over the stage: lying on the floor, jumping over the benches and even stuck between the doors. Their enthusiastic gestures— not “practiced,” but rather natural — and facial expressions dominated the stage, stealing the attention in every scene in which they appeared.
Yes, I loved both of the Dromios. And yes, I could not stop laughing. They had far too much control over the story, though. The director seems to rely too heavily on physical comedy and absurdity to entertain the audience. Such a dependence on other elements diminishes the power of words. Too much joking, too much “fighting with doors” and too much reliance on goofy humor camouflaged the real essence of the play. I am not conservative when art is in question. For me, “art always adds, not subtracts.” There are things in original works, however, that must be preserved.
Apart from my personal debate over whether “The Comedy of Errors” was in fact too funny, I can genuinely argue that it was a moving, highly entertaining play filled with good acting and witty sarcasm.
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