Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Comedy of Errors (at The Schubert Theatre, DeSales University on Thursday July 7th 2011)

A portion of the Errors cast (photo Lee A. Butz)
Performed as part of The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and directed by Russell Treyz

It was clear to me from the very first scene that this was going to be a production with a great sense of humor.  When actor Carl Wallnau came on stage as Egeon, a condemned merchant who has been searching for his twin sons, I prepared myself for the relatively straightforward exposition of what I knew to be a fair bit of backstory.  Egeon’s account is necessary in any medium to set up the play; his scene is sort of a prologue.  On paper, it’s interesting enough, but doesn’t make for a particularly memorable moment. So, when Wallnau launched into a hilarious retelling of Egeon’s woes, complete with a multitude of props, the assistance of a surprising number of actors, and a fair few tongue-in-cheek references to the festival itself, I realized that this production was going to be an incredible amount of fun.

Wallnau’s Egeon was not the only strong first impression here.  As Steve Burns (famed as the original host of Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues) initially took the stage as manservant Dromio of Syracuse, weighed down by enough luggage to take the whole cast camping, the physical comedy and well-timed ad-libs that would characterize the entire production had the crowd roaring with laughter.  Burns continued to mastermind the hilarity, embracing one bald audience member as his Dromio’s “Father Time,” a man with whom Burns went on to have a series of incredibly funny interactions.  Burns would later borrow programs and exchange glances with individual patrons, bringing the audience very literally into the action.  Burns was not alone in a masterful command of the stage; one by one characters burst on stage with so much energy that you couldn’t help but be swept up in the revelry, even when it wasn’t taking place partly in your aisle – which it often was.

Burns’ counterpart, Chris Faith, as Dromio of Ephesus, matched Burns’ hilarity blow for blow – and the blows abounded here in The Comedy of Errors.  As one set of long-separated identical twins, Faith and Burns made for a fantastic tag team in every sense of the term.  The pair took turns through the first four acts driving the comic action on the stage; between Faith’s desperate, stage-spanning attempts to evade a beating with a foreign object at the hands of his master Antipholus (well-played by Thomas Matthew Kelley), and Burns’ leap onto the back of his master Antipholus (identically well-played by Ian Bedford) with all the grace of a spritely Mexican luchador, the pair quite literally resembled a lovably outmatched pair of tiny wrestlers.

Steve Burns applying the aforementioned sleeperhold to Ian Bedford (photo by Lee A. Butz)

Some of my favorite wrestling in this production took place somewhat offstage.  As Burns’ Dromio wrestled with the misplaced affection of, and his unwitting betrothal to, the remarkably obese kitchen wench Nell, her booming offstage presence became a great highlight.  Though we never “see” Nell, Burns’ hopeless endeavor to describe her full girth to the audience – an attempt marked with fantastic physical ad-libs – was easily the most hysterical moment in production.

While the Dromios were an exceptional main event, as was to be expected here, and a number of other actors put in a fantastic performances – notably Eleanor Handley as a wonderful Adriana, and Brandon Meeks as a firm but fair Duke of Ephesus – one particular performer in this stellar ensemble was a wonderfully unexpected surprise.  On the page, the character Luciana is a dim-witted foil for her somewhat sharper sister, and a consistent purveyor of terrible advice to all and sundry, but far from a stand-out element of the play.  While Luciana may be somewhat outshone on Shakespeare’s page, actress Lauren Orkus did a brilliant job of bringing her to life and realizing her full comic potential on this stage.  As the man Luciana presumes to be her sister’s husband declares his love to her, Orkus delivers an enjoyable series of reactions with perfectly timed exclamations and other skillful comic subtleties which elevated the scene.  Orkus has a similar effect throughout the play, standing out and being hilarious in scenes where I did not expect to pay her character much mind.  She reminds me here of Kristen Chenoweth’s Olive Snook from Pushing Daisies, and Suzanne Somers’ Chrissy Snow from Three’s Company: a strong comic female supporting actress who can really make any given scene.  For all her efforts, and certainly for an exceptional performance, I am proud to present Lauren Orkus with the coveted Shawn and Shakespeare Show Stealer Award for this production.

Orkus on the left as Luciana, with Handley, right, as Adriana (photo by Lee A. Butz)

Orkus’ performance was one of a number of ingredients here that made this great play even more enjoyable to see than anyone could have expected.  There was a playful spirit driving the show, one which clearly resonated with both actors and audience.  In a Q&A after the performance, one member of the creative team referred to this energy as a conscious decision early in rehearsal to “embrace a style of performance” marked by the kind of lightheartedness that we had seen on stage.  That was clearly just the first of a number of great decisions, as a fun-loving, tongue-in-cheek mode of operations was incredibly well suited to this play, so full of both slapstick and clever wordplay on the page.  Director Russell Treyz, his production team, and the excellent cast did Shakespeare great justice here in bringing his Comedy of Errors to the stage.

I greatly regret that I was unable to post this review in enough time to get you up to the festival to see this fantastic production.  On the bright side though, the festival will be presenting productions of both Hamlet and The Two Noble Kinsmen, both led by Comedy of Errors Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy.  The Two Noble Kinsmen production will also feature a number of actors from the excellent Errors ensemble including the aforementioned Ian Bedford, Thomas Matthew Kelley, Eleanor Handley, and Shawn and Shakespeare award winning actress Lauren Orkus.  It is my great hope to catch the Two Noble Kinsmen, and I highly recommend you making similar arrangements.

l-r: My sister-in-law Mary Kate (DeSales alum), her former classmate Steve Burns, Chris Faith, and me (photo by Ann O'Brien)