Shakespearean scholars are divided on whether The Comedy of Errors is a comedy or a farce. The distinction, as I understand it, is that a farce is written for one purpose only: to invoke laughter. And by definition, it is broadly drawn and often absurd, piling unlikelihoods one atop another. A comedy, while still aiming for humor, tends to be more realistic and a little more tightly focused. As Oxford's Anne Barton explains in The Riverside Shakespeare, some scholars feel that the ludicrousness of Comedy -- not one but two sets of identical twins getting into scrapes -- borders on farce. But, Barton continues, Shakespeare did not believe in an easily won happy ending, and there are elements of Comedy -- the very real threat of death, for example, and the seriousness of the animosity between the cities of Syracuse and Ephesus -- that deepen the play's meaning, and keep it from floating away on its own fluffiness.
With such a delicately balanced story, it stands to reason that how an audience perceives Comedy will have everything to do with how it is performed. Sub Shakes' Comedy, directed by Katja Rivera and playing at La Val's, takes the goofy road to Ephesus, via 1930s Hollywood, for a witty if lightweight evening of theater. While certain moments could be played more seriously, this Comedy is entertaining enough, and sparkles with very funny performances -- much like the golden necklace one of the hapless twins has ordered made for his wife.
Comedy, the shortest of Shakespeare's plays, is notable for how much motion and confusion he managed to shoehorn into such a small story, most of it set on an Ephesian street. Two decades before the action of the play, we learn, the traveling Syracusan merchant Egeon and his wife Amelia had themselves fine twin boys, "indistinguishable but by name." In the same inn, at the same time, a poor woman was giving birth to her own set of identical twins. Struck by the coincidence, Egeon purchased the poor women's sons as servants and the young family set off to return home. Caught in a storm at sea, their ship split in half -- Egeon and the two older boys on one half, Amelia and the younger ones on the other. Unsure of the fate of Amelia and the boys, Egeon, the older Antipholus, and the older Dromio made a life for themselves in Syracuse. But Antipholus longed to meet his brother and mother, so he and Dromio headed out to search for them.
The play opens with Egeon, who has followed his son to Ephesus, pleading for leniency from the Duke -- a long-standing enmity between the two towns has led to an Ephesian policy of killing Syracusans on sight. The Duke is merciful, agreeing that Egeon has one day to raise enough money to buy his own life. Meanwhile, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have hit town, where people seem to be awfully friendly to strangers -- when in fact they are being mistaken for their Ephesian counterparts, also conveniently named Antipholus and Dromio. After that, it's just one wacky situation after another. Antipholus of Syracuse gets roped into dinner with his brother's wife, the goldsmith gives him a golden chain for no apparent reason, there's constant bickering about misplaced money, and so on. Just as things have gotten about as bad as they can get -- Antipholus of Ephesus in jail, Antipholus of Syracuse trying to skip town, and Egeon scheduled to die -- everything gets sorted out. Both sets of brothers are reunited, the matter of the chain is sorted out, and Egeon's life is spared.
It's a very silly story, one that Shakespeare cribbed off the Roman Plautus, whose Menaechmi was inspired in turn by the Greek Menander, who wrote in the 4th century BC. How the story evolved through all these iterations speaks volumes about the concerns of their times. Menander was writing during a time when it was very easy for children to get "lost" -- often sold as slaves or simply abandoned -- and the question of one's status was of paramount importance. By the time Plautus wrote the Menaechmi, slavery was not the same kind of issue, and he chose to focus on what we might consider the slapstick possibilities of such a situation, drawing his characters as broad stereotypes, working in a more farcical vein. Shakespeare in turn chose to flesh out and add characters, moving the story back towards a finely drawn comedy.
In a sense, the Sub Shakes' version could be viewed as a fourth iteration, as Rivera has chosen to reframe the story as taking place on a Hollywood soundstage, acted out by such golden-age characters as the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Abbott and Costello, and Bette Davis. The classic prologue is (literally) tossed off by Groucho (David Irving), who explains that Shakespeare is usually boring old stuff, but that he and his friends can really do comedy -- "The Comedy" -- the right way. It's an intriguing idea, and the second play in a row Sub Shakes has set in the '30s (which makes me wonder what they plan to do with Uncle Vanya in November). How well it works really depends on whether you're hoping for depth or not. Most folks sitting down to enjoy Comedy want to laugh, and this is the show for it -- the incorporation of classic Marx Brothers bits, for example, is handled well. Those who expect Egeon's story of how he came to lose his family (and possibly his life) to hit an emotional chord might be disappointed when Groucho (as Egeon) and Harpo (as Amelia) toss plastic baby dolls back and forth, mug for the audience, and generally get through the opening as lightly as possible.
If you're going to La Val's to laugh, there's a lot to laugh at. Monica Viharo (last seen at La Val's in the Shotgun one-act The Winged Man) gets to cut loose, demonstrating both an absolutely cherubic, scene-stealing Harpo and a seriously sultry Mae West (perfect as the Courtesan, riotous as the Abbess). Suzanne Svendsen returns to the stage after a 28-year hiatus to give us a perfectly cool, regal Duchess -- with luck we won't have to wait another few decades before we see her elegant work again. And there's Armand Blasi, last seen as Friar Lawrence in Sub Shakes' Romeo and Juliet, once again getting to work a cape, this time as a vampiric Angelo (every time he hissed "the chain!" in the performance I saw, complete with his campy outstretched claw, I thought the folks in front of me were going to fall out of their seats). Really, everyone is terrific, from Adam Chipkin's Bette Davis-as-Adriana and Sorsha Miles as her sister Luciana (as played by Dorothy of Oz) to the two sets of brothers -- and where did Rivera find such a well-matched set of Dromios (Pearl Woolam and Jean Mullis)? Both women take the cuffs and insults of their masters with the same feisty wit, and they are uncannily similar in appearance.
Whether Rivera's Comedy is farce or comedy becomes secondary to how much fun her cast -- and audience -- seems to be having.
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