Sunday, January 29, 2006

Comedy of Errors - What a Production


Since the host has signed us off, consider this non-required reading.

As we are wrapping up, Ernst asked, some time ago, about productions of Comedy of Errors. I have seen only one Shakespeare play more frequently than Comedy of Errors, and that's Twelfth Night, but despite frequent evenings spent in the presence of Dromios and Antipholi, I only remember a couple well. Those that have been staged as simple farces, emphasis on the slapstick, have been mostly forgettable. And while I accept Ernst's observation that the characters in the play don't change much, I do think Shakespeare has endowed the narrative of the play with more than a series of farcical routines.

Perhaps I am hard on the farce. Perhaps I haven't seen many modern farces -- with the notable exception of the Marx Bros. and Joe Orton -- offer much other than forced silliness. Gil referred to the terminal appreciation one feels for Feydeaux’s farces, but my souring on the farce came in London in 1984 with Philip King’s See How They Run, in which the crucial problem is that the "Bishop is arriving and his niece, Penelope, has to pretend to be married to someone other than her husband, the vicar." (Titter, titter.) The director of that play, Ray Cooney, noted in the production program the plots of some of his own farces: "in Not Now Darling an important customer is arriving to purchase a fur coat and the inexperienced Arnold Crouch has to pretend that the coat is worth only £100 ... in Move Over Mrs. Markham, a famous lady novelist is arriving and the impoverished Publisher has to pretend to be his own partner; in Run For Your Wife, the police are arriving and the taxi driver husband has to pretend to be Gay." God, no.

What’s sad here is that Cooney, the founder and first artistic director of London's Theatre of Comedy Company, managed to reduce the form to a simple and simplistic formula -- someone pretends to be something they are not, in a situation of significant personal importance; awkward stuff happens -- much as if he were pitching the things to Hollywood producers with short attention spans. [So, in order to dispose of the Ring, Frodo and Sam must dress as female Hobbits to get past the Orc armies and Sauron -- It's Some Like It Hot in Mordor! ] Perhaps that’s what gets plays staged in the West End.

I did not like See How They Run. And it evaporated from my memory like a smear of rubbing alcohol on a piece of glass. So too did the much more enjoyable Noises Off by Michael Frayn. I remember appreciating its technical brilliance, particularly a bit with a swinging ax, but could not, if my life depended on it, remember the plot without prompting. I laughed hard at Noises Off and at Boretz and Murray’s Room Service which I saw at the Guthrie a year earlier (although it was much better as a Marx Bros. movie), but I experienced no, in Mike’s words, "sense of transcendence."

In the Cooney/King farce, comedy is the result of people being, deliberately with lies and deceit, foolish and from people making fools of each other. In Comedy of Errors, people do not pretend to be what they are not, they do not intentionally mislead others, and the comedy comes from their foolishness in spite of themselves. I wonder if part of this shift has to do with the absence of Mesdames Fortune and Fate as modern engines of human trouble. For Shakespeare, Fate can separate twins at birth then drive them into the same town, unbeknownst to each other, the very same town in fact where their mother is now an anonymous Abbess! I'll leave it to Ernst or Gil, at a future date, to explain whether the Shakespearean audience would have accepted this scenario any more than the modern audience does because of our different relationship with the concept of Fate.

So, what to do with Shakespeare now? In 1983, Adrian Noble staged the show for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. I saw the show in 1984. Noble, who later became the RSC's artistic director, chose to exaggerate the play's comedic and farcical elements by dressing all the characters up as clowns. Noble's show started with a jolly, flamboyant score of music with racing pianos and risqué trap set. The lights dimmed and onto the stage raced the clowns, all in Whiteface, Auguste, and Character clown costumes: tight striped pants, Charlie Chaplin-cut coats, painter’s overalls, dunce caps, starched dickies, spray-painted bowlers, umbrellas, etc. The Dromios, on tricycles, in their baggy plaid pants, big shoes, five-o-clock shadows and white lip makeup, shaggy black hair, soft caps, and large loose overcoats, were dressed as hobo or tramp clowns, a style of character clown originated by Otto Greilberg but made famous by folks like Emmett Kelly, Red Skelton and, if you grew up in Denver, Blinky the Clown.

Both Antipholuses were dressed in a neat looking gray suit, white shirt, white shoes, blow-dried hair. Handsome men who might have seemed out of place surrounded by all the clowns. Except both had an entirely blue face. (This is actually a stunning choice by Noble, as, according to Wikipedia, "it is common for clowns to avoid the use of blue face paint, as this is considered bad luck." Perhaps this fits; both Antipholi suffer their fair share of bad luck. But if I ever have dinner with Noble, this is what I'm asking about.)

The tone was set: pratfalls, honking noises, occasional slide whistles, a white-faced policeman on a bicycle, and an amazingly purposeful set. It was a semi-circular wall about three stories high. White. A door in the furthest, middle portion of the wall. A small square door on the upper right (think Laugh-In’s comedy wall or a definite nod to Peter Brook's 1970 A Midsummer Night's Dream). In addition, a scaffold was lowered down from the ceiling: Adriana’s balcony. And a trap door appeared in the floor after the intermission: the whore’s house. (The imagery here is specific -- Adriana is from heaven, the courtesan from hell.)

The serious parts of the play that we have discussed were downplayed or played for laughs. For example, Aegeon's introduction and story are lampooned. To take away its seriousness and to break it up, Noble directed the company of clowns (townspeople) to take a step forward each time Aegeon’s tale would reach a suspenseful moment. And when he appeared unable to go further, they moan for fear of a lost good story, and he would continue.

My favorite moment was Luciana's dressing down of Antipholus of Syracuse, which made use of the little second story window in the wall. Antipholus is trying to escape from Adriana by climbing out the window and Luciana catches him. He slips and hangs from his knees upside down out of this window. Luciana's speech about how he must love his wife and be true to her is played while he is hanging upside down. (She climbs a ladder to put herself at eye level with him.) During her harangue, he puts his hands behind his head, in his pockets, on his hips, all ordinary movements made comic by his situation. And, again to turn a serious moment into farce, as Antipholus falls in love with Luciana, he keeps reaching for her hair, which forms a tall point, twisting up from her head like a drill bit. The audience laughed at the repeated sight gag.

I loved this production. I wrote in my journal that it was "the funniest production I had ever seen," and in a crude attempt at a pun dubbed it "the greatest show on earth." I was not bothered by its attention to and enhancement of the farcical elements of the play. And despite what I have thought over the last few weeks about farce, I am still not bothered. What Noble did with the clowns, I think, was brilliant. By using more than 100 years of clown tradition in his costuming, Noble calls attention to a human condition: first, that we are all foolish (and this explains our behavior), and second, that laughter is the only plausible reaction to the human predicament. We are laughing at Aegeon's story not because we fail to understand its sadness, but because we see our own needy desire for these types of stories lampooned. (And to see this attitude continued I refer you to The Onion.) Gil asks: "how does one stage a beating today, without lessening the comedy?" Set it in a tradition of comic exaggeration, clowns, that has its roots in Medieval jesters, who endured many a beating on their frequently deformed bodies but also had the freedom to speak the truth.

Bring on Love's Labor's Lost,

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