Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors scored as our unqualified favorite this year. Director Kent Gash’s exuberant celebration of the classic, this time set in late 1920’s Harlem, is staged in the intimate Thomas Theater and played by an impressive troupe of black performers.
The story is a setup for an archetypical farce. Two sets of identical twin brothers (twin nobles and twin servants) are separated as infants during a shipwreck. Through this mishap, both noble twins are given the name of Antipholus and both servant twins are called Dromio. Even after 24 years, Egeon of New Orleans, the father of the aristocratic twins is still searching for his lost wife and missing son. He blunders into Harlem, a crime for a citizen from Louisiana that is punishable by death. Egeon tells his tale to the Duke who is moved to pity and stays Egeon’s execution in lieu of a fine if someone can be found to pay it. Meanwhile, the twin raised by Egeon in New Orleans and his servant arrive in Harlem and are quickly mistaken for their counterparts who are well known prosperous citizens of that same city. Confusion and comedy ensue. What transpires is wild, inventive, and often laugh-out-loud funny.
The comic pratfalls and effects that sustain the play all feel natural. The stage sets and costumes create a whole and consistent world, and the timing of complicated transitions is impeccable. There was not one false note in the entire performance. The end, of course, is a celebration; severed ties are reconnected and new loves are in the offing.
Two enthusiastic thumbs up. If you are going to Ashland this season, this one should go to the top of the list.
OSF’s 2014 adapted version of The Tempest by William Shakespeare signals its audience that this will be a different kind of Tempest even before the play begins. The stage is populated with four sleek-skinned statuesque male figures covered from head to toe in white makeup. They sit equidistant from each other, each in a corner of an invisible rectangle on a broad expanse of red-orange shag carpet. As theater goers find their places and settle into their seats, these glacial figures begin to move, making subtle, almost imperceptible changes in their position. As the play gets underway, the figures become active on stage in a sleek and continuous way (the invisible made visible) to accomplish the intentions of the play’s protagonist, Prospero. The playbill tells us these figures are Butoh (from Ankoku-Butoh- Japanese Dance of Darkness). Their appearance is the contrivance of Director Tony Taccone who has included them to imbue this work with an air of “strangeness.” And indeed they are a strange addition to the play, but the sense of their otherworld-ness is shattered when, late in the play, these figures morph into Prospero’s spirits summoned to celebrate the announcement of his daughter’s marriage. Here Taccone has his Butoh don weed skirts and break into a wild aboriginal dance. To this viewer, the Butoh were an unnecessary distraction from the beginning, and the glaringly inconsistent use of these figures late in the play creates an almost structural dissonance that muddies their function in the performance as a whole.
Apart from the Butoh, the play still struggles to find its footing. The Tempest is one of my all time favorite plays. I’ve read the play numerous times, and counting OSF’s current interpretation, I’ve seen it produced four times (once as a dance performed by the San Francisco Ballet). So I know it can be powerful and absolutely magical, but only if the actor that inhabits the role of Prospero, the lord of the island (a cunning and insightful wizard fluent in the arts of sorcery and prophesy) embodies and projects the power that Shakespeare intends for him on the page.
Yes, Shakespeare’s Prospero is an old man, but a man of potent magic, wise in years and not yet in decline. The time has come; he has both justice and destiny at his back, and he is bound to face those who deposed and exiled him on his terms, and restore himself and his daughter, Miranda, to their royal home and their rightful office. Alas, this production’s Prospero is used up, more a washed out old man than a wizard who literally mutters his lines into his hands.
The actors who inhabit Caliban, Miranda and Ariel do an outstanding job, but this is not enough, since the play and their place in it must orbit Prospero. Aye, there’s the rub – but that’s from another play entirely.