The Setting's Just Right and More in this 'Comedy of Errors'
by Joe Adcock
November 17, 1994
There are more errors than comedy in The Comedy of Errors. If a director wants to squeeze any fun out of this early (1594) Shakespeare farce, he or sheto quote the chorus girls from Gypsy!51;has gotta have a gimmick.
Tacoma Actors Guild director Bruce Sevy has a gimmick. It's a pretty good one. Literally pretty. The setting by Carey Wong is the most beautiful and interesting work of stage scenery we've had in these parts since Intiman Theatre put A Midsummer Night's Dream fairies onto looping and swooping trapezes a couple of years back.
The Sevy gimmick is to plunk Shakespeare's reworking of a 200 B. C. roman plot by Plautus down into mid-19th-century Japan. Wong facilitates the ensuing fun. His framework of wood strips and rice paper is filled out with the sort of exotic Japanese geometric designs and stylized pictures that piqued European imaginations in the time of Queen Victoria.
Enhancing the sense of culture clash, there's a miniature Gothic cathedral, complete with light-up rose window. And giving welcome oomph to a long and implausible tale of shipwreck and heart-rending separation is a delightful puppet show. Yep. As this windy narrative is beginning., a chuck of the stage rises, revealing a miniature theatre in which bunraku-style marionettes act out (with the help of black-clad stagehands) fantastic misfortunes.
The usual gimmick for squeezing the fun out of Errors is to severely cut the toilsome marathons of Elizabethan witticisms and add knock-about slapstick stage antics, laced with lewdness and bawdy business. Sevy doesn't buy the burlesque option. His actors try, all in all, to impersonate ordinary humanity. As the errors and misunderstandings build, noisy consternation takes over. Before long, the actors rant more than is good for any dramatic or comic purpose.
The problem with injecting anything resembling ordinary humanity into Errors is that with the addition of even a smidgen of common sense, the play would be a short one act. We have these two sets of twins, right? And they know they were separated at infancy during that terrible storm at sea, right? And the whole "comedy" gets going when one pair of twins sets out to find their long-lost counterparts.
So the minute the twin-seekers encounter an inkling of "you look just like," or "I mistook you for someone else," or "it must be you, I'd recognize you anywhere," common sense would say, "Aha! Mission accomplished."
Aggravating implausibility is primitive plot construction. Shakespeare's characters are constantly telling one another what the audience has already seen with their own eyes. An irksome feeling of "we already know all that, could we get on with this please?" keeps lurking.
Some of Sevy's actors do some pleasant bits when they are not ranting or recounting. By miming just about everything he says, Mark Anders (as a twin who is a clownish servant) manages to make some of the obscure Elizabethan "witticisms" witty. Bill Ontiveros, as a goldsmith who is trying to track down a client, mixes a comical brew of fawning and fury. He wouldn't offend a rich customer, but neither would he endure a scam artist. As the neighborhood geisha, Lisa Pan conveys the dreamy Western male fantasy of refined little ladies who are virtuosi of erotic entertainments.
Costumes by Paul Louey capture the odd visual extremes of East-meets-West. The various ladies' kimonos and wigs would do for ambitious productions of The Mikado. And a European nun's habit is so bizarrely alien that it could fit into a Star Trek episode.