The Stables Theatre at Shakespeare & Company is the site for a summer long series of noontime performances of "The Comedy of Errors"by the company's Summer Performance Instutite. The Performance Institute is made up of young and youngish actors who have already been through S & C's training in at least one of the company's Month-Long Intensives--- and in this instance, all eleven actors are women. Directors Kevin Coleman and Johnathan Croy have choreographed a knockabout farce set in Ephesus on "the second Tuesday on Antiquity, from noon 'til 5 o'clock". Costuming is Uttermost Ottoman Empire style, with turbins and mustachios to assist the transformations in gender. The Stables playing space doesn't really lend itself to the kind of jungle gym set that facilitates acrobatic jokes, so the "Error" crew must exploit props and costumes to help them make their comic points.
The first scene passes painlessly, as a mere settling-in. Marzena Bukowska's Duke Solinus is an oversize ego in a half pint package topped by a gleaming towering of turban; but with her rich and resonent accent-tinged voice Bukowska plays the Duke soberly enough to stifle laughter while Egeon (Christina Depew) recites the sad tale of his search for his lost twin sons and their servant twins. Stilll, all that ducal pomp in such a petite package is pretty funny, and at this point there seems to be a real possibilty that we are going to be encouraged to laugh at the physical implausibilities of these women passing for men. Egeon's tangled tale of woe, and the death sentence he has incurred by venturing into enemy territory, is not sent up--- but neither is it made real and pitiable. The first twins scene-- featuring a Merchant (Jennie Burkhard) and the Syracusan set of Antipholus (Anne Latta) and his servant Dromio (Valerie Hauss Smith) -- settles the plausibility question: all three simply assume their male characters without exaggeration and get on with the plot.
It is still unclear at this point just how cruel this "Comedy" intends to be. The first of the numerous beatings written into the script occurs when Dromio of Ephesus (Alicia Adema) comes to fetch what he believes to be his own Ephesian master Antipholus home to dinner and really pisses the Syracusan master off. Latta and Adema play this first whacking full out, using a wicked-looking implement that looks like a dark brown sausage or a flexible baseball bat. Latta flogs vigorously, Adema suffers pitiously, but persists in cajoling and in cracking jokes. This does rather set the tone-- a whole lot of bashing's going on, but the resilient victims will bounce back from their injuries undaunted. Characters will launch themselves at their antagonists, or at the walls; and flee into the laps of the audience for protection. The actors really enjoy all this reckless hurling about, and we in the audience egg them on, enjoying their enjoyment.
Eliza Ladd's Syracusan Antipholus is a good match for his brother, and both Antipholi and their leading ladies sail through sexually charged scenes with aplomb. I was particularly impressed by Jennie Burkhard, who gets a lot of mileage out of an anachronistoc pair of spectacles belonging to her sweet and light Luciana. Burkhard manages to portray Luciana's conventional and rather passive feminity shyly blosoming into forbidden passion at the frenitic pace and with the over the top physicality that is the play's norm. On the other hand, I also appreciated the charactizations of Kate Whitehead, who seemed to find a way to set each of them against the general frenzy, registering a slow motion take or a drawn out pratfall, and making comic points very simply and elegantly.
I thought the business with the goldsmith and the Doctor Pinch from Africa's left field unsuccessful. However, the Institute members will spend the summer leaning from performance, and by this time this review appears Coleman or Croy may have come up with some new ideas, or the audience's reactions may have taught the actors how to make the staging I saw work. In any event, all ends happily. The actors beam, the audience applauds vigorously, and all exit smiling.
Afterward, I realized that much of the pleasure I -- and, I think, the rest of the audience-- got from the show was from the cross gender doubling, and the sense that here was a instance of actors stretching, and trying their wings, and taking delight in undiscovered territory. It made me want to see more single sex productions, and also to long to see the ultimate "Error" challenge: each set of twins played by a single actor. This has been done a couple of times that I've heard of, and John Harding, who acted in a one-actor-two-Dromios-production himself, makes the case in his recent "Shakespeare the Player" that this is the way Shakespeare intended it to be played, and way it was originally done. Harding's case isn't all that convincing in print, but I'd certainly like to see some good actors put it to the proof in practice. It does seem to me that the weakest part of this production, as with all the others I've seen (and the one I played Luce/the Abbess in myself) is that everyone on stage sees twins who look and even more importantly sound exactly alike while we in the audience have to exercise heroic feats of suspension of disbelief to grant them a mere resemblence. What if we, too, were confused,? And had to do some mental gymnastics to deduce which Antipholus it is who is before us? Is this more difficult to pull off than Irma Vep? Yes, directors: a one-actor-two-Dromios one-actor-two-Antipholi is a stunt I long to see!