The Stratford Festival’s current production of Comedy of Errors is an historical one in several ways. First, the production represents the 200th Shakespeare play produced in the Festival’s 50 year history. Second, it’s the last play directed by Richard Monette during his—some say infamous—reign as Artistic Director. Considering these two historic milestones, it comes as no surprise that Monette has chosen this opportunity to fly in the face of convention and opted instead to go out with the loudest, most garish bang he could muster.
This is, without a doubt, a Comedy of Errors designed for the masses. As the audience takes its seat, the fire curtain presents a map of the Mediterranean, with Syracuse and Ephesus clearly marked. In the bottom left hand corner, we are given a title card that reads: “The Comedy of Errors / By William Shakespeare / or another Elizabethan by the same name.” The lights go down and a spot light highlights Syracuse, then elongates to create a travel path down, around Greece, then back up to Ephesus, just in case you’re not clear what’s going on.
The opening scene features Brian Tree as Egeon, the father in search of his twin boys who were separated in a terrible storm at sea. Tree tells his tale in a tedious monotone, while each of the dramatic highlights are punched with "Ooooos" and "Aaaaaahhs" from the townspeople, lined on benches and wearing white togas and Greek masks. Commentary is provided by Ian Deakin as Duke Solinus, whose main feature is the inability to say Ephesus without nearly spitting out his teeth. Meanwhile, the Duke’s horse throws in his two cents, neighing and demanding attention throughout. By the end of the scene, the audience is thoroughly enchanted and has no clue whatsoever what the plot is actually about.
From this point on, the production hurtles forward at an alarming rate, with no opportunity for slapstick left unturned. Heads are bonked, butts kicked, people chased in and out of doors. Scene changes are filled with everything from a live dog chasing a toy cat across the stage (three times); a woman in Moroccan dress on a stuffed camel dragged through to advertise the Festival’s musical at the same venue; Egeon marching by with a sign declaring “My end is near,” which later flips to reveal a picture of Monette. A penguin marches out and then turns to show a sandwich board sign that says “Just for the critics,” as if it wasn’t already patently clear that Monette has been thumbing his nose at them all along.
The staging is constantly moving and always frantic. Longer expository passages are turned into musical numbers on the assumption that they’re just not entertaining enough as they are. The set is a rather clever range of doors and windows, allowing for a series of Laugh-In type interjections and barely-missed slapstick entrances and exits. The price for all this action is, of course, the text. If you’re looking for depth of character (not that there is much of that in this play to begin with) this is definitely not the right production for you.
The superficiality of the show is emphasized by the fact that not a lot of the cast has the comic timing or stamina to keep the pace going. David Snelgrove as Antipholus of Syracuse makes his marks and speaks his lines, but doesn’t really contribute any real personality to the part. Tom McCamus as the Ephesus twin is twice his age and constantly surly, but in an understated way that detracts from the comic pacing. Only Bruce Dow (Dromio of Syracuse) is in his native environment here, camping it up to the audience and running off on textual tangents such as segue into Gone with the Wind. Steve Ross (Dromio of Ephesus) is to be commended for managing to keep pace. Lawrence Haegert deserves a particular mention for his well-crafted, stoner Balthasar who captured even the director’s imagination enough to give him his very own psychedelic exit, complete with go-go dancers and mood lights.
The women fare less well in this production. With less obvious physical slapstick available to their parts, Allegra Fulton (Adriana) and Sophia Walker (Luciana) constantly seem to be offbeat. Fulton and Snelgrove lack romantic chemistry and try to compensate for it by batting their eyelashes at each other or delivering their lines as though the subtext simply doesn’t exist. Brigit Wilson puts in a comedic turn as the Courtesan, but most of her laughs come from her impossibly screechy voice and a repetitive visual joke that has her headdress light up every time she thinks. That Tom McCamus’ real-life wife, Chick Reid, is playing his mother is a weird little Oedipal twist. And while there is a noticeable increase in actors of color on the stage— which is a good thing—one does wish that they wouldn’t be most prominently featured wearing bikini underwear, flashy vests, and sunglasses while in the service of Dr. Pinch (Walter Borden), an Asian-looking witch doctor who brandishes a large book on the occult.
Audiences will undoubtedly be polarized by this production. Those who love it will be content to sit back and enjoy the visual rollercoaster ride and will probably not miss the glossed over plot points, the lack of substance behind the individual performances, and an adherence to the text overall. For many of these people, this will be the first time they have associated fun with Shakespeare, and this is an achievement to be commended. On the other hand, other folk will be frustrated by the frantic, superfluous action, and the utter lack of substance to this production. It’s a glittery, glossy shell around a big hollow core, and as such, isn’t really Shakespeare at all.