Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Comedy of Errors in Ashland

Ashland, Oregon—

SATURDAY: TWO PLAYS yet to see, one of them a Midsummer Night's Dream to which I don't quite look forward, having heard it's a bit too, well, revisionist in its "concept" production — we'll see tomorrow.

We've already seen one concept production, but it was so "conceptual" — that is, dominated by the producers' determination to impose their own extraneous unifying perspective onto Shakespeare's text — that it is in fact and proclaimedly an adaptation, and to my mind a successful one: a musical version of The Comedy of Errors set in "a town west of the Pecos" in a vaguely late-19th-century period.

Adapted by Penny Metropulos (who also directed) and with a score by Sterling Tinsley and lyrics by both (and additionally by Linda Alper, who also takes an important supporting role), the result seems laid onto the Shakespeare Festival repertory like a glove on a hand. It draws on the Festival's acting ensemble, its outdoor theater, even its history of Shakespeare productions (both "traditional" and revisionist), plays with them, profits from them, in a complex and rewarding way I haven't seen in a theater company since Berkeley Rep's self-examination Rep which ran its course back in the early 1980s, in the then-new thrust-stage theater on Addison Street, and then unfortunately disappeared so successfully I can't now find its author or production history.

This Comedy of Errors is so engaging and energetic it's impossible to complain about it. Tinsley's score, like much else in the production, pokes fun at itself as much as at other musicals; it incoporates familiar old hymns and folk-songs seamlessly with occasional Broadway-type ballads.

The text is basically Shakespeare; the lyrics of some songs are apparently right out of the Folio. (Cole Porter's "I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple", from his Kiss Me Kate adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, came often to mind; this Comedy of Errors was probably inspired partly by that example.) The plot remains Shakespeare's, too, though it's delivered in a raucous, movie-influenced Wild West setting.

I won't "review" the performances or cite the cast; OSF's webpage does that well enough: the cast was evenly matched, the two sets of twins remarkably persuasive physically; and even the addition of a sort of interlocutor, in the form of a Mexican troubador, and a Chinese merchant so stereotypical that any concern with political correctness is overcome by kitsch comedy — even these elements do much more to serve Shakespeare than to betray him. I'd see this production again.
Shakespeare:The Comedy of Errors, running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, through Oct. 12.

2 comments:

Terence said...

Hey, Charles-
Rep was written by Stanley r. Greenberg (the same guy who wrote Soylent Green!). It was directed, of course, by Michael Leibert (the guy who founded Berkeley Rep). It had its world premiere there from October 28 – December 4, 1977. Don't know if it ever went anywhere else.

Here's the rest of the info from the program:

Scenic Design: Christopher M. Idoine
Costume Design: Lesley Skannal
Lighting Design: Matthew Cohen
Sound Design: Paul Dixon

Cast: Alphonso McVay, Jr. (The Black Actor), Heidi Hutner (The Girl Apprentice), Troy Evans (The Character Actor), Karen Ingenthron (The Leading Actress), Joe Spano (The Leading Actor), Kendell Jackson (The Ingenue), James Dean (The Young Actor), Julia Odegard (The Character Actress), Dale Elliott (The Boy Apprentice)

Charles Shere said...

Thanks, Terence. I was sort of hoping the reference to Rep! would bring out a comment like yours. IMDb tells me that Greenberg died in Kensington, California, in 2002 (he was born in 1927). I recall that play Rep very fondly; it should be revived.