Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Comedy of Errors - A Couple More Notes

I have five things to say, the second of which is:

[I had a student who would enter my office thusly, leave without ever getting to number 1, and render me sleepless deep into the night.]

2) Randall explored the nature of identity when both Syracusians and Ephesians encounter strange responses, attributing them first to "cozenage," then to sorcery--law, reason, logic are all somehow suspended--and he notes that "once they have shifted into this frame of reference, they deny the realities right in front of them. This does address the logical challenge to willing suspension of disbelief: if the Syracusians are traveling to seek their lost twin brothers, named Antipholus and Dromio, why don't they twig earlier to the logical explanation of why strangers keep calling them A. and D. Because, says Randall, the strangeness of assumption and perception, has removed logic from their responses.

But there is another facet to the strange situation that continues my earlier comments on perception and assumption. The newcomers from Syracuse face the dangers of a strange, then alien, place. Every situation and every encounter is new, and they know they must respond to it to figure it out. But the locals view Ephesus as their familiar environment. They have spent twenty years refining their reactions to daily discourse. When you come home to dinner, however belatedly, you will be welcomed in. If you bespeak a chain from the local goldsmith, even if you intend to give it to a courtesan and not your wife, when you encounter him he will deliver it, not have you arrested. One travels to a foreign country to experience the new, the challenge, the adventure. One stays home and expects to be comfortable, even a bit bored, as one moves through the familiar. We may have identical twins, but this contrast of expectation provides a very special dramatic irony for the audience, so we can learn anew the difference between our own reactions and responses.

3) When Randall extends this to identity itself, "If you don't act like yourself, are you yourself?" it reminds me of a wicked tease I used on my students. The term "personality" comes from Latin persona meaning mask, as in actor's mask. Thus, I would do a riff, when they claimed that a sorority sister had "a great personality" that she must be the best liar in the house and could present the most effective false front to those around her. This actually led to some serious discussions about when the mask becomes one with the face and the constructed identity replaces true character. Antipholus of Syracuse must put on a mask to acquiesce to Adriana's insistent invitation to dinner, but the true Antipholus (of S) courts a shocked Lucinda, actions that are contradictory, yet show us something Plautus's Menaechmi lacks, depth of character.

4) Ernst brings out a strange anomaly in my personality (smiley face here). Whenever I did observations of graduate students or peers teaching, I was transformed. I would be sitting in the back row and suddenly I would have the urge to be a student again, raise my hand, and shout, "Oh, I know, Teach! Call on me, Teach!" So here is Ernst with a list of study questions for study, and I want to answer all of them. (If it's possible, I think Ermst's approach would be interesting for me for many of the future plays.) Here are a few responses:

The feel of the Duke's opening language not only fits Theseus and Richard II, but also Henry IV, whose opening "no more" speech is my idea of "public speech," spoken not by Henry but by the Office of King (Richard Nixon used to refer to himself as "The Office of President"). Errors's opening lines are not so political, but they certainly have the sound of the sense of political order which Mike and Randall have explored.

How does one stage a beating today, without lessening the comedy? I mentioned that I saw a production at the University of Colorado in 1975 or so, and about all I can remember is one Dromio trying to escape a beating by shinnying up an officer's pike staff, and he fell, which sobered up the audience immediately. Another production, broad farce, at Colorado State, did Three Stooges beatings--with sound effects: bam, boink, clong. Didn't work for me. In the BBC video, Antipholus rolls up his cloth cap to give non-capital 40 whacks which makes Dromio's complaints into comic overstatement. My friend Dick Henze saw a production of Shrew in Northern England in which Petruchio beat Katherina with a bull whip (in the text, he never touches her), so realistically and so savagely, that at the end of the play as she lay motionless on the stage, the shocked audience rose, without curtain call, and crept out of the theatre into the night. Snuff Shakespeare.

I find the characters of Adriana and Lucinda the most full in the play. I make Lucinda prissy, self-righteous, Moral Majority, until Antipholus of Syracuse makes love to her. Adriana, despite her jealousy and foolish concern that she has lost her attractive beauty in the course of marriage, is still the more voluptuous, witty, ironic, common-sensical. In the BBC video, Lucinda is the blond, dressed in sky blue, while Adriana is brunette, in purple with black and jeweled trim and impressive décolletage. The actress is Suzanne Bertish, if you have time to fall in love this weekend. But in the (awful) Colorado State production, it was the Courtesan who was blond, with Helen of Troy tresses, and a white satin gown with golden brocade, who stood motionless on the balcony stage left, as a beacon/symbol of the pleasure principle. So different from the rest of the production that it was as though Jayne Mansfield had wandered onto the set from some other sound stage. The director cut the Adriana/Lucinda debate which is so important to me.

5) Above, I have referred a bit to productions. I think I have seen four. The first, despite the memory of the injured Dromio, I remember as a lively and well-dressed presentation of the text, though I retain little of the detail. The Colorado State version was among the five worst productions I have ever seen (the others: Rent, with the original London cast; Fuddy Meers; Speed the Plow; and a comically incompetent Macbeth in Harrogate, England, in which Lady Macbeth's death scene got laughs. I also once had two double brandies at intermission to get through a London production of Irma la Duce. The second act was swell). I don't remember much about the Dromios because the director had written in two nonspeaking parts of town folk who giggled and poked and pointed at the action, and who seemed to be, to complete upstage effect, spastic or otherwise possessed. The six of us who went vowed never to see Comedy of Errors again.

But, what kind of fool am I? Jean and I saw another at the Denver Center Theatre not three months later. Set in Venice Beach, sand and sunshine, with a board walk and a dune buggy. The effect was carnival. The spirit was infectious. Dromio of Ephesus was a beach bum, shades and all, while Dromio of Syracuse was more a tourist in bearing, if not in dress. Adriana was more shrewish than I read her. This time, the twins were double cast, DCT standbys John Hutton as the Antipholi and Mark Rubald as the Dromios, in one of the best comic (not farce) performances I have ever seen. Part of the pleasure was watching the character shifts as the actors moved from one twin to the other. The trick of course, is Act V, in which two actors (the program lists "the other guys"), similar in stature and identical in costume, sneaked on to the stage, shielded by other business, so we really did get "hand-in-hand."

I have not rewatched "The Brothers Karamazov" trapeze version, but I did look again at BBC, directed by James Cellan-Jones, a TV director with little Shakespeare experience. Money guys Time/Warner (?) or Gulf/Western (?) had commanded to just archive the plays, "no interpretation" which of course is an interpretation. Notable: Egeon (Cyril Cusak), looking mournful, walks silently across the set five or six times to remind us of his fate. Twins are double cast with young Michael Kitchen (have you seen "Foyle's War"?) as Antipholi and Roger Daltry (yes, of The Who) as the Dromios. No problem with pounding on the door or hand-in-hand because of split screen techniques. The twins are quite different: A of E is arrogant, intemperate, and impatient, A of S is more amused, bemused, and entertained; Dromio of E is frustrated but somehow practical, while Dromio of S is sweetly baffled by everything, a sort of "isn't this remarkable" look which never suggests comprehension. In the cluttered market Dromio of S fingers goods, then sees himself in a mirror, then goes around behind and discovers the "mirror" is an empty frame. Shades of a Marx Brothers bit I can't quite place. Cellan-Jones doesn't quite trust the text, so one Antipholus wears collar up, the other down. So, way back when I was an undergrad and said the director should have them wear different color ribbons, I WAS RIGHT!

1) Sorry, out of time.


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