The Comedy of Errors | 03.16.12

COE sqSo, another Rep season, its 45th, comes to an end, and The Comedy of Errors takes it out with a bang and, appropriately, a party.

 


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Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Laissez bon temps rouler!, the traditional Mardi Gras “Let’s Party!” call, is being used by the Rep to promote The Comedy of Errors, and having seen it, now I know why. The eternally time-traveling Shakespeare has now been dropped in 1936 New Orleans, and the good times do, indeed, roll, Chere.

Specifically, the action is set in Ephesus, a “small town near New Orleans,” according to the program. Paul Mason Barnes directs in such a way that the proceedings look at once timed with military precision but also just thrown up against the wall to see what stuck. (That’s a compliment.) The show begins with a rowdy musical prologue in which all the characters introduce themselves by name and tell a little bit about themselves to help orient the audience. Barnes used this same technique in last season’s Macbeth, in a much more sober fashion, of course, so I’m beginning to think it might be a trademark.

Shakespeare uses many of the conventions he will employ in later plays—scholars say this one may be his first work for the stage—identical twins; mistaken identities; two sisters, one shrewish, one kinder; both highborn and lowborn people behaving badly, and so on. After the role call number, the actual prologue is spoken by one Egeon of Syracuse (Lenny Wolpe) who is arrested for stepping foot into Ephesus. It is illegal for Syracusans to be in the town, and if they do enter its boundaries, they are subject to execution according to an ancient city code. But Egeon has risked it to find his lost son, Antipholus (Chris Mixon), and the son’s servant, Dromio (Doug Scholz-Carlson), who departed some years ago (the number varies in the telling) on a merchant ship and never returned.

Having lost both Antophilus’ and Dromio’s twin brothers and his own wife, Amelia, at sea when the children were infants, Egeon is naturally anxious to find the son who remained to him. It’s a mistake to get too tangled up in the numbers here, because by the end, the “boys” are all supposed to be 33; one of the Antiophili could pass; the other, not so much. One looks like Nathan Lane, and the other rather favors Stacy Keach, but the Dromios are a good match in looks, but not in their singing voices, so. . . oh, forget those pesky details!

Of course, all four are now in Ephesus and chaos is the order of the day, especially since the Syracusan changed their names to “Antipholus” and “Dromio” when they were 18 to honor their lost brothers. Yes, really, And Antipholus (of Syracuse) doesn’t understand why people recognize and hail him on the street, but he is particularly confused after he sends Dromio on an errand and Dromio (of Ephesus, Christopher Gerson) comes right back to tell him his wife wants him at home for dinner. Neither man is aware that there is a difference in Dromios. Tarah Flanagan is outstanding as Adriana, rendering her as a spoiled, Scarlett O’Hara-type, who is just about outdone with her spouse (Michael Fitzpatrick). Her sympathetic sister, the unmarried (as she frequently notes) Luciana (Kate Fonville) counsels patience. She is nearly always seen carrying a book with advice for wives, which she frequently cites to Adriana.

Meanwhile, Egeon who has been given a 24-hour dispensation by the sympathetic Duke (Walter Hudson) to either find his son or raise his bail, goes around telling his story to everyone he meets. It’s the funniest running bit in the show, which has many echoes of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and this is only one. You’ll also be frequently reminded of the Keystone Kops and the Three Stooges in the constant flow of comical stage business. There’s also a lot of suggestive wordplay in the form of puns, double entendre and outright dirty jokes. The young Shakespeare was clearly interested in sex, for while much is changed in the scenery, era, and additions are made, nothing is removed. The play’s script is still his.

All’s well that ends well, of course: The Antipholi and Dromios are reunited with their father and twin brothers, and one character is revealed to be the long-lost mother, as well. It’s clear that Luciana won’t be the spinster sister for much longer either. Along the way, we are treated to a New Orleans funeral procession (Egeon even lifts the lid of the coffin to tell the corpse of his woes), a slinky courtesan (Shanara Gabrielle) who tempts the married Antipholus and has a wonderful comic moment with a riff on “The House of the Rising Sun,” which brings me to the music. There is so much of it that I think this production could legitimately be considered a musical. Some is original (by Jack Forbes-Wilson who is a particularly engaged on-stage piano player) and others are pop songs or hymns and gospels. Right in the middle of all this foolishness, the sad-eyed Wolpe’s Egeon delivers a moving “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.”

Act I seems to move along faster than usual because of all the visual spectacles before us. The costumes alone are worth the price of admission. One standout scene near the beginning is performed by the Syracusans when Antipholus and Dromio change clothes in a two-man vaudeville sketch. One bit that was funny at first but got old was that when someone was being beaten (the Dromios) or when any fighting breaks out, the characters punch each other’s hats and caps and the actors react as if to blows.

The characters who use Southern dialects, particularly the women, are funny, but sometimes hard to understand. That doesn’t matter much though, because both Flanagan and Fonville are so expressive with their faces and bodies that we always get the gist of what is being said, even if we don’t grasp each word. Same with the Courtesan who speaks in a Pepe LePew French accent. Adriana’s house servants, two flamboyant young men, provide additional humor to their scenes. Overall, it’s a very strong cast, and there isn’t room to mention everyone, but I do want to note that it’s always good to see St. Louis actors. Here are, besides Gabrielle, Aaron Orion Baker, Chris Hickey, and Jerry Vogel). And trust me, you haven’t seen anything on stage in your theatre-going life to rival Hickey’s Nell, the kitchen maid and lover of Dromio (of Ephesus).

Act II is longer but whether that bothers you depends on how much you like seeing “cameos” by impressions of famous people who drop by to sing a bar or two of their greatest hits. I won’t ruin those surprises. They are fun, but it does seem to slow the pace a bit. The Abbess has most of her work in this scene, and she’s a true “soul Sister” as played by the inimitable Tina Fabrique. The set is marked by the intersection of Rues Bourbon and Orleans and is comprised of three structures, one is an inn, another the home of Antipholus of Ephesus and his family, and the central two-story structure which makes full use of both levels as playing space. The scenic designer, Erik Paulson, notes that he adapted it from a different kind of stage, but it works remarkably well, as does Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting design and, as always, Rusty Wandall’s sound. The players are in no way confined to the stage itself; however, they dash all around the theatre, all the better to see those brilliant costumes by Margaret E. Wheedon. As stage manager, Glenn Dunn really had his work cut out for him and his assistant Tony Dearing on this one.

So, another Rep season, its 45th, comes to an end, and The Comedy of Errors takes it out with a bang and, appropriately, a party. Audiences have been treated to a particularly strong slate of shows, both on the mainstage and in the studio—some were great and others were just merely good, but there were no real misses this year—so I want to applaud Artistic Director Steven Woolf and his stellar staff for a job very well done. | Andrea Braun

The Comedy of Errors runs through April 8 at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. You may visit www.repstl.org for more information, including show times and ticket prices.

 


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