When Gower Champion blithely recycled and expanded on memorable moments from his earlier Broadway triumphs in staging 42nd Street—performers in boxes from Bye Bye Birdie’s telephone number, the costume parade and staircase bits from Hello, Dolly!—he knew something the audience did not: that this would be his last chance (he died of leukemia the afternoon of the show’s premiere) to use every showbiz trick he’d ever learned.
Here’s hoping Douglas C. Wager will be with us for many years to come, but credit the director with offering something of a similar self-homage in staging the Shakespeare Theatre’s latest packed-to-the-farcical-rafters Comedy of Errors. Anyone familiar with Wager’s two-plus decades at Arena Stage will recognize echoes of his happiest work there—the smoking-hair riff from that basement explosion in You Can’t Take It With You, magic tricks and musical numbers that conjure Candide, twins schtick from Twelfth Night, Arcadian topiaries, a nun with the unmistakable rasp of his most reliable leading lady, even a brief visit by a reincarnated Harpo and Groucho. The director has ever been a more-is-more kind of guy, and the Bard’s romp, with its twinned twins and double helpings of hijinks, lowjinks, and most jinks in between gives him an excuse to rummage around in a near-bottomless bag of tricks. The result is not always seamless, but it is frequently hilarious.
He begins with what amounts to a silent declaration that while mirroring may be the play’s method, his approach will be less to reflect than to fracture and refract. As the audience enters, it sees a painted clock atop a painted mirror; when the houselights dim, the mirror turns transparent, revealing a storm-tossed shipboard tableau: a young couple cradling two pairs of swaddled identical twins. But no sooner have they mixed and matched the babies than a bolt of lightning shatters the mirror, separating them and leaving a now-melted, 3-D clock dripping from a stagewide frame around a town of Ephesus as MC Escher and Salvador Dali might have imagined it.
At first the town is enveloped in shadows, as an elderly visitor from Syracuse tells the story behind the tableau we’ve just seen—how he and his wife were separated at sea, how he raised the two mismatched twins in his care to think of themselves more as siblings than as master and servant, and how first they, and now he, have traveled the world searching for their brothers. When he’s finished his sad tale—a sort of plea for mercy from a local law that calls for him to pay ransom or be executed—the town lights up around him, seemingly constructed by designer Zack Brown entirely of forced-perspective alleyways, inside-out staircases, and clouds that spill from the sky onto shutters and walls. It’s peopled by what appears to be a Kismet touring company, complete with belly dancers, turbaned merchants, and colorful folk who almost immediately burst into a rousing chorus of “Oh happy Ephesus.”
So far, none of this has been as funny as it is visually arresting. But no sooner has the old merchant been clapped into jail than his boys, Antipholus and Dromio (Gregory Wooddell and Daniel Breaker) arrive from Syracuse to be mistaken by one and all for a local Antipholus and Dromio (Paul Whitthorne and LeRoy McClain), and thereafter the stage is awash in comic business.
Jewelry and money crisscross town in the wrong pockets, doors and beds are barred to husbands and opened to strangers, lovers take refuge in topiary hedges, buildings twirl like tops, and actors play fast and loose with theatrical form by stepping out of frozen scenes to talk to the audience and perplex their peers. By midway through Act 2, not only have a flame-throwing wizard, a furry purple llama, a mustache-twirling Dali, and half the Marx Brothers put in appearances, but the fourth wall has been breached by performers so desperate to escape the onstage mayhem that they rush out into the lobby to hail a cab.
Much of this is every bit as funny as it is anarchic, though Wager hasn’t parcelled the laughs out evenly. Of the mismatched-twin pairs, the Syracusan half is a riot, Wooddell turning Antipholus into a winningly Kevin Kline–ish romantic klutz, all indecision and double takes, while Breaker makes Dromio a man who can follow a pun wherever it leads, but is led astray in matters of sex—with a hilariously helpless literalness—by another part of his anatomy. By comparison, Ephesus’ pair of twins must play straight men to the Syracusan cutups, and time spent with them isn’t nearly as interesting.
Something similar happens to the Bard’s women, with Marni Penning squeaking and swooning her way into the audience’s heart as a woman who’s startled, horrified, and not a little intrigued when a man she takes to be her brother-in-law starts romancing her, while Chandler Vinton’s shrewish wife must content herself with tantrums and slapstick, and an overample maid and curvaceous seductress are more or less required to hit their stereotyped marks, then vamp.
Other performers make less distinct impressions. Floyd King, the troupe’s most talented clown, is so obscured by his magician’s costume that he’s reduced to a walking sight gag, though he at least gets to make a couple of his fellow cast members disappear. Ralph Cosham acquits himself nicely as the elderly merchant but has the thankless task of embodying the sadness that is at the heart of the director’s vision of comedy. Figuring that Shakespeare threatened this kindly old man with execution at the beginning of the play to anchor and give human dimension to the shenanigans that follow, Wager has Cosham play him not just seriously, but as a figure of tragedy—a strategy that makes sense of the play’s occasionally urgent references to time (which the director underlines by having the hands on that melted clock twirl forward and backward).
But for all the emphasis Wager places on the human side of a story that’s mostly being played for laughs, the family reunion at the play’s conclusion isn’t any warmer or more heartfelt than usual. It’s just quieter, necessitating a bit of byplay between Dromios and a sung curtain call to conclude the evening on a properly antic note. An error in judgment? Well, possibly, but with so many laughs in this Comedy of Errors, no one’s likely to object.
Moldy shutters with ferns and ivy growing through their missing slats surround the stage at Gunston Theater II—a vision of decay in New Orleans that seems all too apt at present but also happens to capture the ambiance Tennessee Williams required in Portrait of a Madonna, the play in which he first imagined the character who would eventually become Blanche DuBois.
In the Keegan Theatre’s production, a mane of blond hair cascades onto a pale blue nightgown of this proto-Blanche, known as Miss Lucretia Collins (Sheri S. Herren), whose air of frazzled delicacy masks a will of iron when it comes to protecting her privacy and her memories. Lucretia’s hotel room is in serious disarray—furniture shrouded, teacups and saucers littering the floor, papers and record albums scattered everywhere. Rot is in the air, of both a physical and a spiritual kind.
Apart from weekly excursions for church functions, Lucretia has rarely left this suite in the last 20 years, preferring to remain at home with memories of a man she loved and lost in her youth. Lately, though, she has been imagining that he’s returned and has nightly been “indulging his senses”—a rape fantasy worrisome enough that the hotel manager has reluctantly decided it’s time she relocated to the state asylum. The manager is still solicitous of her, and so is a gentle porter (Timothy Hayes Lynch) who checks up on her regularly and listens to her stories. But a crass elevator boy represents the real world, and when a doctor and nurse show up, it’s clear Lucretia will henceforth be dependent exclusively on the kindness of strangers.
Portrait of a Madonna qualifies as minor Williams, but there’s a fascination to seeing how the playwright worked out one of his most vivid characters, back before it occurred to him to give her a worthy antagonist. Absent a Stanley Kowalski, Lucretia has no one to push back against—which puts her at a disadvantage dramatically and makes it hard for her to sustain audience interest even in a play lasting barely 45 minutes. Still, the chance to see her and Blanche in such close proximity (Keegan is presenting Streetcar across the Potomac at the Church Street Theater, with discounts for those who want to see both productions) is certainly intriguing.
After intermission, the stage clutter disappears, but the emotional humidity remains stratospheric in Suddenly Last Summer, another Williams one-act in which worries about the asylum loom large. Mrs. Violet Venable (Herren) has invited an ethical but impoverished lobotomist (Scott Graham) to interview her niece Catharine (Marybeth Fritzky) with an eye to permanently silencing her. Catharine recently traveled with Mrs. Venable’s son to the beaches of the Cabeza de Lobo, where he lost his life, and Catharine lost her mind, under circumstances that can only be described as grotesque.
The film adaptation, featuring Katharine Hepburn as Mrs. Venable and Elizabeth Taylor as Catharine, won both performers Oscar nominations, so it’s easy to see the attraction of producing the play for a company with a stable of accomplished actresses. Herren is too young to be playing either delicate Lucretia or steely Mrs. Venable, but she’s nonetheless effective in both roles, scattered and terrified before intermission, scabrous and terrifying after. Fritzky’s Catharine is what might be called ferociously fragile, utterly persuasive as a woman well past the verge of a nervous breakdown. Other performances are adequate and sometimes more than that, with the secondary cast generally better at underplaying concern than at overplaying malice. Design elements are also helpful, particularly Franklin C. Coleman’s shadowy lighting and those uncredited shattered-shutter sculptures that surround the stage. CP