Twin set: Suraya Keating, Andrew Fonda Jackson and Brandon Roberts are so bad they're good.
'Comedy' proves bad Shakespeare can be good theater
By David Templeton
It sounds like a headline from the Weekly World News: "Two Sets of Identical Twins Swap Wives, Fortunes and Identities!" Flagrantly absurd and ridiculous, that's also the basic plot of William Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, recently launched as the season-ending production of the Marin Shakespeare Company's summer festival in San Rafael.
Why anyone would choose to perform Comedy is a mystery, since it is as famous for being one of Shakespeare's least-accomplished works as it is famous for . . . well, that's pretty much what it's famous for. That and the two sets of identical twins. So I'm a bit dumbfounded that this production of Comedy, directed by Bay Area treasure James Dunn, is not only the best production of the play I've ever seen, but the best Shakespeare production I've seen so far this summer.
But first, let's talk a bit about bad Shakespeare.
Assuming you attend as many live Shakespeare plays as I do, the law of averages suggests that you have seen a mix of the Bard's greatest hits (Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet--aka, the good plays) and his less frequently performed works (Titus Andronicus, Cymbeline, King John and Comedy of Errors--aka, the bad plays). You've probably noticed how frequently Shakespeare's good plays are given bad productions. What gives?
Some of the worst Shakespeare I've ever seen onstage, from L.A. to Ashland, from Equity houses to Junior High School auditoriums, have been stagings of the Bard's best and loftiest plays. I still suffer nightmares from one Romeo and Juliet I saw on the stage of some since-condemned theater in Los Angeles, a show so slowly paced, drawn out and simply bad that the actor playing the apothecary actually apologized to the audience during his brief appearance before the stunned audience. By the time the star-crossed lovers had killed themselves, I'd grown murderously resentful that they all had weapons and I did not.
In contrast, some of the most breathtaking productions of Shakespeare that I have ever experienced have been stagings of his lesser plays. I recall in particular an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Henry VI, Part 1--arguably Shakespeare's least pulse-inspiring history play--that was so inventive, energetic, gorgeous and bold that the entire audience forgot they were watching a "bad" play and leapt to their feet at the show's complex conclusion.
All of which brings us back to Comedy of Errors.
Two sets of identical twins, both named Dromio and Antipholus and separated at birth, find themselves being confused for one another in the coastal town of Ephesus. Both sets of twins are played by Brandon Roberts (the Dromios) and Andrew Fonda Jackson (the Antipholi), with a different voice and body language for each.
Lost at sea as children, one of the twin-sets has set up a life in Ephesus, with Antipholus now a wealthy businessman and Dromio his servant, while the other twin set, a pair of adventurers from Syracuse, come to town looking for wealth and love. Subconfusions involve Antipholus of Ephesus' wife, Adriana (played like a young Phyllis Diller by Mary Knoll), and her sensible sister, Luciana (LeAnne Rumbel).
Staged outdoors, Dunn's concept is to take the "comedy" in the title, slap a funny accent on it and work the show for all it's worth. With classic vaudeville and old Marx Brothers films as its apparent inspiration, this is the kind of show in which off-color one-liners (after all, Shakespeare was their nasty master) are accompanied by rim shots banged off by a grinning woman with a missing tooth.
Mel Brooks would have approved of the way anachronisms (7-11 cups, Coke machines) collide with pseudo-historical costumes (turbans, helmets, unraveling togas). Everyone speaks in funny voices. Pratfalls abound, and even the actors in the smallest roles get a chance to give hilarious performances. High kudos to Jack Powell as a cash-strapped merchant appearing in a variety of pan-handler guises to foil the cops, and Stephen Dietz as the duke of Ephesus, pulling off one of the funniest drunken-toga-wrapping scenes in recent memory.
Fans of good bad-Shakespeare will want to catch this show, because the bad good-Shakespeare will be back before you know it.
'Comedy of Errors' runs Friday-Sunday through Sept. 24. Friday-Sunday at 8pm; also Sunday at 4pm. Preshow talk with scholars or company artists, every Friday at 7:30pm. Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University, San Rafael. $15-$30. 415.499.4488.
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