Because you’re all so fascinated, I’ll continue my series of reviews of shows at the Stratford Festival. My review of their production of King Lear is here. My review of the Shaw Festival’s production of Summer and Smoke is here. This review will cover two productions briefly: The Comedy of Errors, and My One and Only, both at Stratford.
MORAL TOMORROW – COMEDY TONIGHT
We took our son, Moses, aged 4 3/4 (as he will tell you) to Stratford’s production of A Comedy of Errors. It was the first Shakespeare he’d seen live, though he’s seen videos of 3 Shakespeare plays (The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew, all Stratford productions from the late 1980s). So he had a pretty good idea of the plot.
Unlike the production he’d seen on video (which was excellent), this production did not use the same actor to play each of the Dromios and another single actor to play both of the Antipholuses. In general, I think casting the same actor for both twins is more interesting for the actors (who must, by their manner, clearly delineate the differences in character so that the audience knows who is who) but more confusing for the audience, particularly the under-5 portion thereof. This production certainly avoided any confusion; indeed, the two Antipholuses, David Snelgrove (of Syracuse) and Tom McCamus (of Ephesus) look nothing at all alike and are so far from being twins that there must be 15 years’ age difference between them. While they are both performers I admire, and each did a creditable job, this difference did not aid in the suspension of disbelief.
Also unlike the production he saw on video, this one had a Dromio of Ephesus wearing smiley-faced underwear, revealed when his Antipholus pulled down his trousers in a fit of pique. This was Moses’ favorite moment in the show. And that, in turn, should tell you everything you really need to know about the production. It is completely over-the-top, confirmedly silly, and this is both perfectly fine and a bit of a shame. Perfectly fine in that Comedy can withstand – indeed, encourages – maximal silliness. It is, after all, a farce. I saw a televised production of Comedy done by the Flying Karamazov Brothers that was absolutely hilarious and made no pretense of sticking to a plausible reading of the text, staying in character, maintaining the convention of a fourth wall – any visual pun, sight gag or pratfall they could throw in they threw in (plus, of course, lots of juggling). But for all their considerable talents as actors and comedians, the Stratford company are not circus performers, so it is probably not the best idea for them to turn the play into a circus.
And if you are going to do the play as a play, one wants to jokes to, generally, work with the material rather than distract from it. And unfortunately, the director, Richard Monette, frequently loses track of this distinction. A dog chases a cat across the stage; a camel advertises another production in the same theater; Balthazar has an extended drug-induced hallucination; I could go on – none of this has anything to do with what is going on at the time in the play. Other gags that are more connected to the action too often work against the logic of the scene – as, for example, the business Monette has Antipholus of Ephesus engage in when locked out of his home, which involves breaking the theatrical illusion by having the characters run around the bits of scenery representing the locked gate. This is a perennial problem with Monette’s more recent productions, such as his 2003 production of Shrew. But this is really a case of taking a good instinct – for the importance of visual and physical comedy, particularly in farce – too far; in earlier productions, such as his 1980s Comedy and Shrew, Monette got the formula exactly right, using sight gags to enhance our understanding of the characters as well as to amuse us, and taking liberties with the text to strengthen it rather than to distract from it.
For all that, the production is fun, and the only fatally weak scene is the opening, when Egeon’s lament fails either to move or to inform because we are perennially distracted by gags that have nothing to do with the moment, and serve only as a warning of what can be expected in the rest of the production. David Snelgrove and Bruce Dow as the Syracusans are quite funny individually and have an excellent on-stage rapport with one another. The Ephesians are not as strong; Tom McCamus, an actor I am very fond of (he did a marvelous job as the lead in Richard III and as Mac the Knife in Threepenny Opera, both in 2002, the last time I had seen him on the Stratford stage) seemed a bit low-energy as the Ephesian Antipholus, though his timing was still acute, and Steve Ross was solid as his Dromio but also lacked fire – one sensed with them more than with Dow or Snelgrove that they were chafing under Monette’s direction. The supporting performances are all generally fine, but none were able to really shine in this production. (And if I were Walter Borden, I would be worried about type-casting; this is the second time in recent memory that he has been cast as a witch-doctor.)
The thing about Comedy is that it is a rollicking farce with more serious overtones. The frame story is the plot of a romance, not a comedy: a story of Egeon’s loss and recovery of all he holds dear (it is, in fact, pretty much the plot of the late Shakespearean romance, Pericles, Prince of Tyre). And embedded in the comedy is the more serious story of the marriage of Antipholus of Ephesus to Adriana; this marriage is not going particularly well as the play opens, and both husband and wife presume that the farcical disasters attendant on mistaken identity are the result of these marital troubles. The story of their marriage is not played for cheap laughs in the text, and though there is no profound moral here (nor, indeed, is this conflict actually resolved, other than by the Abbess’s advice to Adriana to stop being so shrewd), the play as a whole is deepened by this serious undertone, and we are reminded that this is, after all, a play by Shakespeare, not an episode of Three’s Company. Monette does a decent job of bringing out the undertones of the marriage story, but (as I noted previously), steps on the Egeon story in the opening scene.
All in all, a good production to take a young child to, but not one that is likely to spark a life-long interest in Shakespeare in said child.
FULL OF WORDS AND MUSIC, SIGNIFYING NOTHING
I’ll be very brief in reviewing My One and Only as I have very little to say. This is a pure piece of fluff, with barely any plot worth speaking of, no meaningful characterization, and, worst of all, precious little wit in the book. The show is a cut-and-paste job, an excuse to sing and dance to some great Gershwin tunes. I don’t think you need much of an excuse to do that, and this production delivers on its own terms. The dancing is fine, the singing is fine – what’s to complain about?
Really only two things. First, I’m not a big fan of Cynthia Dale, Stratford’s lead chanteuse and danseuse, and this show doesn’t really change my opinion. She has a voice, yes, but I don’t think it has the brass for musical theater (it’s better suited to cabaret) and, more important, she consistently fails, in my view, to inhabit the roles she plays, or to evince much chemistry with her leading men. This is disastrous in Guys and Dolls or My Fair Lady; in My One and Only, it frankly doesn’t matter too much.
Second, what is the reason for Stratford to put on a show like this one? I have no objection to Stratford’s putting on musicals; the American musical is a great theatrical art form, and the best of the genre are some of the best theater of any sort from any age. But this show is in no meaningful sense part of the canon of musical theater. Stratford has put on a series of second-tier musicals in recent years, but this isn’t even second-tier as a musical. It’s a revue; it’s a vaudeville; it’s an entertainment. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but it’s not really what Stratford is for.
But let me say some nice things. Laird Mackintosh is winning as always in the role of Captain Billy Buck Chandler, tap-dancing air ace. Mark Cassius is a treat in the regrettably minstrely role of Mr. Magix, uptown tutor in style to Captain Chandler. Dayna Tekatch is cute as a button as Mickey, Captain Chandler’s mechanic and side-kick. And the underwater ballet in Act II, done with black light, is a marvel (my mother-in-law is still convinced that they somehow filled the stage with water – "I saw them swimming!").
I’m not going to discourage anyone from going. If you go, you’ll have fun. But as they say, it ain’t Shakespeare.