Eye Arts Scrutinizer
BLUE LAKE – The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, first performed in late 1594. It is a rather predictable tale of mistaken identities and broad humor, set in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, although, like many of Shakespeare's works, it contains references to contemporary events of his time.
Given Dell'Arte's focus on the theatre of place, Shakespeare seems a bit of a stretch. And indeed, Dell'Arte has not undertaken to perform any of his works in nearly 40 years, according to Producing Artistic Director Michael Fields. Yet they did this year, a calculated risk following the highly successful two-year run of Mary Jane, the Musical, a piece very grounded in theatre of place.
And it works. This production of The Comedy of Errors is set "in a place much like Arcata at an event much like the Farmers' Market," writes Fields. The set, designed by Daniel Spencer, suggests a number of buildings crammed together, and is full of doors used to great comedic effect throughout the play. The doors are labeled with a mishmash of Humboldt area businesses (mostly sponsors) such as the Logger Bar, the Alibi, the Northcoast Co-op, Piersons and Wildberries Marketplace. This fictional "Plaza" is populated by hula hoopers, an aggressive dog, a pack of travelers with giant backpacks and that ubiquitous saggy-panted long-haired plazoid, brilliantly played by Pratik Motwani.
While the troupe has chosen to retain much of the Elizabethan language, some of it even brilliantly set in song by Tim Gray, the actors also transition seamlessly into modern English to reiterate key points. Dell'Arte has also taken liberties with the text, adding contemporary references as current as the Oyster Fence from the very start of the play, which elicited the first of a great many guffaws from the audience.
The company also chose to "gender flip" a number of the main roles. Twin protagonists Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus become Antiphola, convincingly played as two distinct personalities by Founding Artistic Director Joan Schirle in a bright red wig. Siblings Adriana and Luciana become a brother and sister pair, leading not only to a lesbian awakening as a sub-plot, but also to passing commentary on the legalization of same-sex marriage. This twist lends a whole new meaning to the Shakespeare's diatribes on marriage and marital relations, as well as taking the edge off of his more misogynistic comedy.
The Comedy of Errors proves to be an ideal vehicle for Dell'Arte's company of actors to play to their strengths. The broad clowning and slapstick physical comedy is ably pulled off by the entirety of the ensemble, with notable performances by Andrew Eldredge and Jerome Yorke pantomiming each other as the twin Dromios. Also notable for her comic performance was Janessa Johnsrude as the Duchess of Ephesus. The mask work and voice work by Zuzka Sabata as Aegeon and Anna Gettles as Aemilia were very effective.
The surprise among this clownish ensemble was the duo of Chase McNeill as neglected husband Adrian and Lynnie Horrigan and his sister Luciana. Among the garishly-costumed cast, these two in their brown street clothes could easily be overlooked. They are also burdened early on in the play (before the audience's ears can become accustomed to the cadences of the language) with prolonged passages of Shakespearian dialogue, delivered from a balcony at a remove from the audience. Yet they manage to connect, to convey the meaning of their words, and to ham it up (especially McNeill, who emotes like the best of soap opera queens) without losing the pathos of their characters.
Opening night was marked by the usual first night technical glitches, especially in sound, which Dell'Arte's superb technicians have surely already corrected. The audience was engaged, amused and along for the ride. Do not miss this production, and do not wait until the last minute to go, because you will surely want to see it more than once.
The Comedy of Errors plays Thursdays through Sundays (except July 4) through July 7 at 8 p.m. in the Rooney Amphitheater. Tickets are $18 adults, $15 students and seniors and $10 for kids 12 and under and available by calling (707) 668-5663 or online at dellarte.com. Arrive at 7:30 for best seating, and do bring your own chairs and blankets.