There's not much point in staging a stodgily reverential, doublet-and-hose version of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. The slapstick piece about two sets of twins separated at birth is patterned after a Roman-comedy model that was hackneyed when Shakespeare borrowed it and has been beaten to death ever since. Still, the Bard's trademark sense of humor shows up at every turn in what's regarded as his first comic effort. But since the work lacks the transformative romantic undercurrents of, say, Twelfth Night or such richly drawn characters as Rosalind, Viola or Benedick, it seems ripe for immediate transport to an exotic locale or epoch.
So it's best just to fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's off-the-minaret version set in Marrakesh, where characters rush to and fro among brightly colored ruins that the program notes say are "somewhere between Road to Morocco and Raiders of the Lost Ark." The two-and-a-quarter-hour effort is impishly conceived by director John Dennis, who took a 1930s Hollywood approach to the CSF's moderately successful production of Moliere's The Miser a couple of seasons back. And it boasts flowing costumes (designed by Polly Boersig) that occupy the eye during a few tangential and long-winded scenes. There's also a mystical flute-and-drum score that's got snake-charmer allure, a couple of politically incorrect jabs and a host of fine performances that lend immediacy and originality to the flimsy work without turning it, as typically happens, into an extended stand-up routine. The director's spiced-up concept isn't completely homogeneous, but at least Shakespeare's use of the term "saffron face" seems right at home.
So does actress Reba Herman, whose full-bodied, captivating portrayal of Adriana, an exasperated Moroccan housewife, stands in welcome relief to the show's plethora of Three Stooges-like gags. In fact, the normally secondary role of Adriana becomes the audience's most reliable point of reference, in part because she witnesses the unraveling of key events. But Herman also displays admirable confidence with Shakespeare's dialogue, making it easy for the audience to view the action through Adriana's eyes. With her sonorous voice reverberating in the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre's far-flung expanse, the technically adept actress effortlessly sashays her way into theatergoers' hearts while struggling to maintain Adriana's firm grip on both her husband's whereabouts and her sister's dizzy musings.
Trouble is, Adriana has no idea that her mate, known to the audience as Antipholus of Marrakesh (Mark Light-Orr), has an identical twin, Antipholus of Syracuse (Andrew Shulman), who happens to be passing through Marrakesh. When the hot-blooded Adriana nibbles the thighs of the befuddled Syracusan--the wrong Antipholus--in an effort to force him to satisfy her carnal desires, she's coldly rebuffed. A few scenes later, the Syracusan's frigidity causes Adriana to wonder whether her lesser half is cheating on her when she spies one of the Antipholi responding to the come-hither gyrations of a belly-dancing courtesan (Tiffany Boeke).
Complicating matters further, both Antipholi have servants who are also identical twins (that trusty Shakespearean device, a shipwreck, was responsibile for splitting up the pairs of siblings when they were very young). As a result, Dromio of Syracuse (Carson Elrod) and Dromio of Marrakesh (Michael M. Milligan) have trouble figuring out which master they're serving at any particular time. In fact, the servants mistake one Antipholus for the other, deliver money and goods to the wrong people, and wind up taking beatings for each other's perceived misdeeds and broken promises. Naturally, the local constable (Anthony Marble), a manic-depressive jailer sporting a giant orange-red mustache, has a devil of a time keeping the peace. Especially when a hairy, husky "kitchen wench" named Nell (Alexander Ward) takes an unhealthy liking to one of the Dromios. After flashing sequined pasties in the audience's direction, s/he chases the object(s) of her desire to the musical accompaniment of a bleary-eyed merchant (Kalen Allmandinger), who, in addition to tweaking the action with a host of sound effects throughout, offers the out-of-towners a drag from his suspicious smoking hookah.
As might be expected, Shakespeare entrusts the male characters with the many episodes of low comedy. Apart from forcing the issue early on and displaying an unfortunate tendency to squeeze in contemporary expressions between the scripted lines, the director's exuberant charges don't often disappoint. In fact, some of their extracurricular bits, such as an extended one about flatulence and another in which a prisoner's hand becomes enbedded in the jailer's massive buttocks, elicit more laughter than anything the actors are able to achieve with Shakespeare's dialogue. (Shulman, though, deftly makes the best of both worlds with his delivery of "I understand you--not!") As the Antipholi, both Shulman and Light-Orr fulfill their unenviable tasks as straight men while also generating enough sex appeal to avoid coming off as mere comic props. Elrod and Milligan are amusing as the clownish, energetic servants.
The strong supporting cast is led by the triple-cast Ward, whose cross-dressing routine is augmented by his portrayals of an oily loan shark and an uncertain executioner who does his best to keep a ten-foot sword under control. Susanna Morrow's thin-voiced portrait of Luciana exudes sisterly concern and spinsterly meddling--qualities that will no doubt come in handy when the bubbly, cat-glasses-wearing cheerleader someday pens The Moroccan Girl's Guide to Chaos. Boeke's comely courtesan adds luster to Act Two's festive goings-on, and Ethelyn Friend earns laughter when, as the local abbess, she sheds her Flying Nun-style habit to reveal some salient, plot-tidying points. The decision to assign several actors multiple roles--Andres Saenz-Hudson turns in an impressive performance as both the jeweler Antonio and witch doctor Pinch--adds yet another layer of enjoyment to Dennis's fast-paced, if occasionally tiresome and cutesy, show.
Shakespeare would eventually hone his craft to become the greatest comedian of all time. But he also spent a good deal of energy propounding his belief in the natural order: Man is above beast but subject to God. As his Wars of the Roses plays attest, most any political landscape is littered with manipulators, whiners and hotheads who either inherit the crown or are willing to usurp its mantle. And plenty of insurrectionists, playboys and oafs pretend to greatness that, to their everlasting chagrin, ultimately eludes them.
In Henry IV, Part One, for instance, a wayward Prince Hal (Michael Christian Huftile) and his wise-fool sidekick, Falstaff (Michael Kevin), nonchalantly subvert the royal code of conduct by living a sensual life unburdened by bureaucratic or moral concerns. At the same time, Hal's overbearing father, King Henry IV (Joel C. Morello), who ascended to power by deposing the hapless Richard II, is forced to deal with a challenge to his ill-gotten authority from a disgruntled former ally, Hotspur (Randy Howk). All of which is made reasonably clear in director Michael Addison's boisterous production.
Less apparent, however, are the more complex and double-edged aspects of each character's behavior. Instead of sharpening the contrasts between stately honor and right-honored knavery or weaving the play's disparate forces into a tumultuous, dissonant whole, Addison casts a two-dimensional flatness over the proceedings. As a result, Shakespeare's symphonic examination of men, politics and power resembles a hastily composed piano reduction in which all the melodic notes are played with equal value and weight. (The director also employs screeching incidental music that sounds as if it were composed for an Elizabethan version of Psycho.)
Morello, for instance, properly seizes on Henry's desire to instill discipline and obedience in his son. But rather than display kingly authority while lecturing Hal or statesmanlike restraint while addressing the court, Morello declaims and shouts his lines for much of the evening. And the veteran actor, who shines in his other role as Glendower the magician, finishes a few of Henry's gestures with a clawed hand that brings to mind Shakespeare's infamous hunchback, Richard III, instead of the strong-willed patriarch of the House of Lancaster.
None of this gives Hal much of an example to emulate. Huftile finds Hal's easy charm and fun-loving zeal, but he has difficulty conveying the more noble, elevated qualities that will, by virtue of his hard-knocks experiences with Falstaff and the boys, transform him into the heroic Henry V (who has been immortalized by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh). Huftile makes easy, inconsequential conversation of Hal's first soliloquy, for example, when the short speech should reveal a budding monarch foretelling his eventual rise to greatness.
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On the opposite end of the power spectrum, Howk nails Hotspur's obtuse bluntness and thirst for revenge--and then hammers away at those qualities until we're ready for somebody, anybody, to fell him with the dullest available broadsword. That happens, of course, at the end of a sinewy battle scene that's vigorously staged by fight director Payson Burt. But instead of witnessing the quasi-tragic demise of a promising courtier with the right stuff but the wrong temperament, one feels relief at having been spared the inconsequential rantings of an irredeemable lout. And although Kevin delivers Falstaff's quick-witted observations with estimable skill, earning plenty of well-deserved laughter in the process, we're never afforded a glimpse of the desperation that underlies Falstaff's need to consort with men half his age. Or his determination to use any means necessary to protect his hanger-on status, which Hal will eventually strip from him at the end of Henry IV, Part Two (a play that is also being staged by the CSF this season).
To be sure, a number of supporting actors add texture and variety to the near-three-hour tale. Both Chan Casey and Jeremy S. Holm distinguish themselves by rendering portrayals that are arresting without becoming fixated on a single train of thought. And Allen Liu and Barbara Zahora lend some cameo-style sparkle to the otherwise soporific proceedings.
When all is (finally) said and done, an advanced degree in English history wouldn't have helped to appreciate the play's peaks and valleys; Addison has simply failed to arrange them in a manner that appeals to our intuitive understanding of the sources and responsibilities of power. Even Dennis's Three Stooges approach in The Comedy of Errors captures that much.
The Comedy of Errors and Henry IV, Part One, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 15 at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, CU-Boulder, 303-492-0554.