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The Comedy of Errors

First Order of Business: Confusion

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, Boordy Vineyards, Hydes, Md.
Sunday, December 7, 2014, Right corner of makeshift stage
Actor Ensemble Experiment

Antipholus wearing  brown leather tunic-like jacket, gray pants and brown boots, sword in right hand and left hand up in fearful surprise; Dromio in brocaded best, white shirt, multicolor-striped puffy knee pants with brown stockings, wood sword in left hand and right hand up in fearful surprise
Antipholus (Zach Brewster-Geisz, left) and Dromio (Chelsea Blackwell) of Syracuse shock and are shocked in the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory production of The Comedy of Errors. Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

One measure of a successful production of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors is how much the audience becomes entwined in the play's central joke: a pair of twins, both named Antipholus, and their twin servants, both named Dromio, unwittingly alighting in the city of Ephesus. The moment in most successful productions that the audience reaches a state of confusion to match that of the Ephesians on stage comes when one of the Dromios delivers a rope, as ordered, to an Antipholus who had sent the other Dromio to fetch bail money.

In the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory production, which we attended in a special Sunday staging at Boordy Vineyards north of Baltimore, the moment of shared confusion comes later in that scene, after Dr. Pinch has bound and led off Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, leaving behind Antipholus's wife, sister-in-law, and courtesan companion to discuss his madness. Suddenly, Antipholus and Dromio appear on the other side of the stage with swords drawn. They scream when they see the women, who in turn scream and run away when they see the men unbound and armed. Of course, it is Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse who have "reappeared," and as they stand in astonishment watching the women run off, we are laughing in equal astonishment trying to piece together who is who.

And this despite the fact that both sets of twins—Zach Brewster-Geisz and Ben Fisler as Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus, respectively, and Chelsea Blackwell and Caitlin Carbone as Dromio of Syracuse and Ephesus, respectively—are easily distinguishable from each other. The scene's effect is carried off both by how Shakespeare structured his play and the pace and franticness with which the BSF ensemble plays it.

This is the company's annual Actor Ensemble Experiment production in which the actors, with no director, costume designer, or property manager, mount the play in only five rehearsals. The idea is to emulate what scholars believe is the practice of Shakespeare's original companies, which had to stage plays with rapid frequency to keep customers coming back. A prompter is on hand for line calls, and on those occasions the audience is encouraged to throw tomatoes at the chastened actor—foam tomatoes are available for rent, $5 per bag of five. Further factoring into the potential chaos in this particular performance is staging it at Boordy Vineyards' big barn venue for the first time (the production's main home is in the city at the St. Mary's Community Center Great Hall). BSF plays at Boordy often (and will do so each Sunday of Error's run through December 22), but yet the company didn't know where the stage would be located in the room and how the audience and play space would be configured. In fact, the transition to Boordy deprived the cast of two voms and an upper gallery they use in their St. Mary's shows.

Despite this, the performance not only comes off without a hitch, re-blocking on the fly fits in with the script's frantic, confused energy. Shakespeare wrote the play with few scene breaks: Acts One, Two, and Three have two scenes apiece, Act Four has four scenes, and Act Five is one scene. Instead, the action flows on and off stage in overlapping sequences, and even the fourth act's three breaks serve only to allow Dromio of Syracuse to run to Antipholus of Ephesus's home to get the bail money. Even with these few scene and act divides, the characters come and go with virtually no breaks; for example, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse leave the stage at the end of Act Four and reappear 10 lines into Act Five.

This puts a lot of pressure on a cast of just 10 playing 19 roles, especially when the actors have to figure out unfamiliar paths backstage to change in time. In the fifth act, Erin Wagner as Angelo casually slips away stage left and reappears inconspicuously from the same direction as the Courtezan, though the dressing area is behind a curtain stage right. After her few lines, she wanders off so that Angelo can re-emerge from stage right. Wagner also plays Pinch, requiring a quick change along with line shifts in Pinch's one scene, which includes the Courtezan.

Original practice productions in the mere performance without much rehearsal (and thus too little time for analysis) tend to bring new light to Shakespeare's scripts, and this one highlights the streamlined structure Shakespeare used for The Comedy of Errors, his shortest play. Other revelations may be actors' choices, though in the short rehearsal period, the actors have little time to work out relationships not already dictated by the script. That is reportedly the case with the two sisters, Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus (Barbara Madison Hauck), and Luciana (Tegan Williams), which they described in an audience talkback after the show. Hauck sets the standard with her Adriana, coming on stage in a gold crushed velvet skirt over a white hoop petticoat and white corset with pearls (the actors dress themselves, remember) making her look like Wonderland's White Queen but with a Red Queen attitude. Except, she doesn't demand "off with his head"; she seems ready, willing, and most certainly able to do it herself with her teeth and powerful jaws—if her Gorgon gaze doesn't first do in the object of her dissatisfaction. With such a bossy older sister, Williams' Luciana, wearing a lovely blue satin skirt with peasant blouse and black bodice, falls into the kid sister role, alternatively trying to appease her older sister and stay out of her way. But the brat gene runs in the family, and Luciana proves to be as belligerently spunky toward others while behind Adriana's back she practices her own Gorgon gazes aimed at her sister.

The differentiation in the two Dromios also takes an interesting turn in this production. Certainly, the two Antipholi are different: the Syracusan is ever eager and poetical; the Ephesian is ever angry and cynical. I've seen Dromios who individually reflect their states: the Syracusan as his master's trusty fool, the Ephesian as a servant in the violent household of his master and mistress. In this production, though, the Dromios reflect their shared upbringings with their particular Antipholus. While Blackwell's Dromio of Syracuse is an impish jester, Carbone's Dromio of Ephesus is every bit the brawler his master is. Carbone's Dromio is the quick aggressor in the gate scene and stoically stands up to the beatings his master and mistress impart on him. We also hear testimony that Antipholus of Ephesus was a warrior, and Dromio would have served with him (no such testimony is made of the Syracusan pair). So, while Blackwell's Syracusan Dromio defaults to cowering and confusion, Carbone's Ephesian Dromio defaults to bluster and assumes a fisticuffs pose at the slightest hint of insult or attack.

Yet, bucking a trend I've seen in this play the past few years, Fisler's Antipholus of Ephesus is not totally tyrannical toward his Dromio. At one point, he pauses in deep appreciation of one of his Dromio's puns, a surprisingly tender moment in this otherwise loud, raucous production in which the cast members tend to go over the top in their "huh?" expressions (the play is comically confusing enough without the characters using their brows and open mouths as excessive exclamation marks; but, then, I prefer the slow burn of bewilderment).

The two Dromios dressed exactly alike in brocaded best, white shirt, multicolor-striped puffy knee pants with brown stockings, hair in a bun, each have one leg forward with bent knees, a hand out and other hand touching index fingers
Dromio of Syracuse (Chelsea Blackwell, left) and Dromio of Ephesus (Caitlin Carbone) check each other out after meeting at the end of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's production of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

One character, though, goes over the top in the opposite direction, and he may be onto something that I've never seen presented. Egeon (Christopher Ryder) opens the play with his long expository back story about his twin sons, their twin servants, how he, his wife, and the infant twins were torn asunder in a shipwreck, how the set growing up with him in Syracuse determined, upon reaching 18 years of age, to seek out their long-lost brothers, and how the past five years he, Egeon, has been searching for them, bringing him to Syracuse's mortal enemy, Ephesus, and a sentence of death. Many productions use comic stage business or special effects to get through these 100 lines of exposition, but this presentation uses a simple device to keep audience interest keen: at five key lines in the text, Egeon bows his head before the Jailer (here a hooded, ax-wielding executioner), but the Duke insists Egeon further explain himself—much to the exasperation of not only the executioner but Egeon himself. In the final scene, after Adriana interrupts the Duke leading Egeon to execution, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus run on stage. Egeon takes note of what he thinks is his son and servant in an aside, yet, he doesn't speak up for another 85 lines, during which Antipholus describes all the injustice he's suffered this day while his wife, friends, and even his servant contradict him on some points but not others. It's a great show, for us and for Ryder's Egeon, who takes a seat in the audience to watch with immeasurable pleasure. This might seem out of place given his circumstances, but consider this: Egeon believes these are the son and servant he raised, and he knows what a merry pair they are; he lets them play out their joke before he pursues what he believes will be instant redemption from death.

But even in this scene, we are not totally certain if these are Egeon's son and servant or not, but we are laughing along with Egeon, all the same. This final scene is especially rewarding in this presentation as both characters and cast are wrapping up the day's craziness, negotiating on one hand the confusing behavior of the popular Antipholus and his servant Dromio, and on the other the unfamiliar configuration of their theater. You can sip on a glass of Boordy Vineyards' wine as you watch the play, and they do have some decent wines, but, frankly, this play and this production need no further lubrication.

Eric Minton
December 11, 2014

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