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Imagine the fun you could have with The Comedy of Errors, that goofy Shakespearean romp about two sets of identical twins whose identities and agendas get tangled in ancient Ephesus, if you changed almost everybody’s sex. Imagine the barbed observations about gender roles, the droll jabs at feminist excess, the knowing laughs about constructs of masculinity and received wisdom in re relationship dynamicsimagine the endless opportunities for cheekiness and irreverent social commentary.
Now imagine a production so unimaginative that it passes on all those opportunities and tries to make do with noise when nuance is missing. Much as I’m loath to rain on anybody’s gala parade, I have to say the Washington Shakespeare Company’s new Comedyits season opener and the inaugural event at the spanking-new Rosslyn Spectrum theateris such a production.
The really disappointing thing is that this ambitious guerrilla-Shakespeare company has done the gender-swap thing before and done it brilliantly. Delia Taylor’s Twelfth Night cast two women in the boy-girl twin roles, and it was one of the smartest things last season. (It helped that the plot already involved sexual confusion; a duke falls for a boy who’s really a girl pretending to be a boy.) No such luck here. There’s no plot hook to hang the concept on and no inspiration behind the execution.
There are, it must be admitted, occasional laughs. They’re inspired by the kind of low, hip-thrusting comedy anybody can get a laugh with; there’s precious little cleverness here, and the coarseness and clamor threaten to obscure a couple of worthwhile performancesnotably from Taunya Martin, who makes an engagingly loose-limbed Dromio of Syracuse.
In their high-minded directors’ note, Karen J. Sugrue and Robin Ervin sing the praises of bare-stage, black-clad theatrical minimalism as a spur to the audience’s imagination. But their ill-conceived staging of this convoluted lark is nothing if not overdirected and overdressed. Frenetic characters dash and stumble across the Spectrum’s gray-carpeted stage in get-ups that seem calculated to make the eyes bleed: Day-Glo pink socks, shrieking orange spandex, swirls of leopard-spotted acetate and scarlet taffeta. Broad, bug-eyed comedy is the order of the day, and in group scenes from Egeon the Merchant’s Act 1 monologue to Emelia the Abbess’s “shocking” last-act revelation, a shrill, slapstick geek chorus reacts and interacts in madly overblown silent-movie fashion, nattering noisily in what one can only assume is the directors’ attempt to infuse their production with the “visceral energy” they seem to feel is necessary in the age of MTV and Nintendo. It would be distressing if it weren’t so actively annoying; Shakespeare has one of his characters tell us early on that Ephesus is a city reputed to be full of “prating mountebanks,” among other unsavory types, and damn if by evening’s end you don’t want to agree with him.
The dithering starts early. As the captive Egeon spins his tale of woe, the chorus gets to play: his wife (giving birth to twins), a low-born woman (birthing twins destined to become his offspring’s servants), the ship they sail from Epidamnum, the waves the ship rides on, and the storm and the rock that wreck it (separating husband from wife and one master-servant twin set from the other). Said impersonations are generally loud and largely literalist (as the waves, everyone cleverly goes, “Whish”), but they’re nothing compared to the slapstick in store.
Which starts pretty much as soon as Antipholus of Syracuse (Laura Russell, in a stiff brown bob of a wig that looks as if the cat got hold of it) and her servant Dromio (Martin, in the aforementioned socks and spandex and a lurid orange fright wig topped with a hot pink bow) enter. Antipholus S. gives Dromio S. a bag of money for safekeeping, but barely has Dromio S. departed when Dromio of Ephesusfor the missing twins, yes, are right here in Ephesus, where no citizen of Syracuse may set foot on pain of deatharrives to summon Antipholus S. (who Dromio E. thinks is Antipholus E.) home to dinner. Antipholus S. asks where the money is, Dromio E. says, “What money?” and confusion, not to mention much beating about the head and body, ensues.
In most Comedy productions, a sizable chunk of the humor grows out of Dromio E. and Antipholus S.’s run-ins with Adriana, the long-suffering wife of Antipholus E., who turns out to be a bit of a cad; he stays out late, cavorting with courtesans and the like, while Adriana sits home spinning and singing morosely with her sister Luciana about how she fell in love with love, but love fell out with her. (Urp; that’s The Boys From Syracuse. Never mind.) Anyway, Adriana is usually thought of as being beautiful, dutiful, long-suffering, and a bit frayed around the edges; she’s worrying herself into premature old age, and the fact that she’s beginning to show it only worries her more.
Here, Stan Kang plays Adriana as a stay-at-home husband in Pooh slippers while Hope Lambert prowls the streets in a severe rust-colored polyester suit as Antipholus E. And here’s where Sugrue and Ervin’s cross-casting conceit begins to break down: What point is there in conceiving of Adriana as a nelly step-aerobicizing creature who wails into his mirror at the least provocation? If the idea is to subvert the audience’s expectations, wouldn’t it be more subversively funny to watch, say, an extramanly Charlton Heston type pine stoically away waiting for his errant wife? You’d expect a big sissy like this Adriana to be ineffectual; indeed, decades-old stereotypes demand it. But how hysterical would it be to see a grim-faced, steel-jawed, dumb hunk of a husband fret stiffly about keeping himself together while the wife frolics in the French Quarter with a leather-clad party boy (Michael Skinner)?
But Sugrue and Ervin don’t seem to have anything more pointed to say with their choices for the four principal roles than they do with their decision to make Pinch the Officer a woman or their decision to send Dromio S. and Antipholus S. into the aisles at one point to shout lines (about how ugly Dromio E.’s kitchen-wench wife is) across the audience. It’s all glibly arbitrary, and though there are intermittently funny bits”Ho, open the door” takes on new meaning when it’s delivered with the right urban inflectionthere’s nothing to tie it all together. This Comedy turns out to be about nothing more compelling than hair, from the Dromios’ tangerine-dream ‘fros to the blow-dryers and curling irons that stand in for swords in the second act, and at the end of the evening it turns out to be more than a little bit bald.CP