The Comedy of Errors
When we first read in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival press release that women were cast in the four principle roles, which are all male in this play, we thought of Vanessa Morosco's fine work last season as the Earl of Westmoreland in Henry V; however, in this production, the women are playing the male roles as females, and the principal roles that were written for women are now being played by men as males. The women dress as females and recite the male lines, while the men dress as males and recite the female lines.
Though gender parity is achieved across the ensemble and repertory, and while there are a few added laughs because of the juxtaposition, director Geoffey Kent and CSF Artistic Director Timothy Orr's concept pays the price of robbing The Comedy of Errors of much of its native comedy and dramatic sense. While gender parity is an admirable and achievable goal, in accomplishing this, we should not presume gender interchangeability. The playwright's intent and text do not support this.1
|(L to R) Kelsey Didion, as Antiphola of Ephesus|
and Carolyn Holding, as Antiphola of Syracuse
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Additionally, given that the setting is Paris in the 1930's, with a nice selection of songs from that era by The Parisian Minstrel (Alicia Baker on accordion: think Django Reinhart and Stéphane Grapelli and the Quintette du Hot Club de France, or, closer to home, Lannie Garrett's annual run of "Under Paris Skies" and the CD of the same title), it's unfortunate that the French maxim, "Vive la différence!" is overlooked.
The actors certainly perform well in every respect in this experiment—Carolyn Holding and Kelsey Didion as Antiphola of Syracuse and Ephesus; Lindsey Kyler and Emelie O'Hara as Dromia of Syracuse and Ephesus, Steven Cole Hughes as Adriano and Christopher Joel Onken as Luciano—but the concept doesn't work because the behaviors and speech no longer fit the characters.
|(L to R) Kelsey Didion, as Dromias of Ephesus|
and Carolyn Holding, as Dromias of Syracuse
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
On the other hand, what little sense of this intricate farce is left is made by the characters whose behavior and speech fit their character—Howard Swain as Egeon, Sean Scrutchins as Doctor Pinch, and Mare Trevathan as the Abbess of Ephesus.
It's also quite likely that, properly characterized, the setting could have been a fun way into the material, although in this case it has its highs—the opening Can-Can, the costuming (Meghan Anderson Doyle), and some occasional French-flavored shtick, none of which has anything to do with the original play—and lows—the Duke in a modern suit sentencing Egion to death for commerce and the six sets of well-appointed gigantic doors (Caitlin Ayer), which we presume are there to give a farcical pedigree to the procedings, except that the farce in this play, derived from mistaken identity, is not particularly dependent on the slapstick, split-second timing of farces with multiple doors being opened and slammed in rapid fire succession. If anything, the action in the production seems static and presentational—except for the French whipped cream on top—relative to the normal flow for this play.
|(L to R) Steven Cole Hughes as Adriano|
and Christopher Joel Onken as Luciano
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's presentation of The Comedy of Errors runs through August 7th. For tickets: coloradoshakes.org.
1 Of course, for Stratfordians, there is no guidance for any autobiographical content in any of the plays, nor is there any reverence for Elizabethan context, particularly in the comedies. In such a worldview, any adaptation can be rationalized. But in Edward de Vere's life there are plenty of autobiographical references in every play.
In the second scene, we are introduced to a journey at sea, just as de Vere undertook in his 25th year, with the brothers Antipholi also being 25 years old. The play itself, written a year later and performed on New Year's Day the following year, 1577, at Hampton Court, by the Children of Paul's (as A History of Error), marks the playwright's first attempt to explain and apologize for his behavior toward his wife, Anne Cecil, whom he had suspected of infidelity (a subject raised in one form or another in nine of the 37 generally accepted plays of the canon).
Essentially, the playwright has divided himself into two characters, as the Duke of Ephesus observes of the twin brothers:
One of these men is genius to the other:
And so of these, which is the natural man,
And which the spirit? Who deciphers them?
De Vere takes the same approach to his wife, splitting her into two sisters, Luciana roughly translated as "the light one," and Adriana, "the dark one"; that is, Anne Cecil as de Vere first saw her and as she had become." (Mark Anderson, 'Shakespeare' By Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 125)
The argument—even delivered with the poetic license of children ("Children and fools speak truth" was a popular bromide of the time, with three plays enacted by Elizabethan children's companies citing this very proverb, reminding the audience the special license granted to a dramatist writing for boys [Anderson, p. 124])—did nothing to alter Queen Elizabeth's displeasure with her petulant poet (and one-time lover), even after the play was performed again six years later, when the situation had gone from bad to worse and then to damage repair, but it does reveal the latitude and license that de Vere held as a satirist when it came to Her Majesty.
Eventually, de Vere was forgiven. On Sunday, June 26, 1586, the queen affixed the seal of the Privy Council to a royal warrant for a stunning £1,000 annual salary for de Vere, just as the crown was gearing up its propaganda via the stage (the histories) and pulpit (anonymous homilies). In putting de Vere on the public dole, the queen had effectively attached as many strings to her eloquent puppet as she needed. The Comedy of Errors acknowledges as much:
Dromio of Ephesus: I buy a thousand pounds a year! I buy a rope!
De Vere's license, though, does permit him a jab at his monarch, getting away onstage with what other playwrights could only dream of, portraying Queen Elizabeth as the fat kitchen wench Nell, who is jokingly anatomized as a map of England and its dominions.
Antipholus of Syracuse: What's her name?
Dromio of Syracuse: Nell, sir; but her name and three quarters, that's an "El" and three quarters [syllables], will not measure her from hip to hip.
Ant.: In what part of her body stand Ireland?
Dro.: Marry, sir, in her buttocks, I found it out by the bogs.
Ant.: Where Scotland?
Dro.: I found it by the barrenness, hard in the plam of the hand.
Ant.: Where France?
Dro.: In her forehead, arm'd and reverted, making war against her heir ...
Ant.: Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?
Dro.: O, sir, i did not look so low.
This rather risqué pun at the queen's expense is lost in this production, as Nell becomes a male cook, thereby disabling the ancient notion of the monarch's body as the nation itself. Of course, without biographical context, such authorial allusions never cross the threshold of consciousness in the world of Stratfordian make-believe.