For its 15th Anniversary Season, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater presents The Comedy of Errors as performed by the Classical Acting Academy: an eight-week program designed to give young professionals a crash course in Shakespearean stagecraft under the leadership of a veteran director, text and acting coaches, and combat instructor. While the cast's relative lack of familiarity with the material strains the production in places, they and director Rosemary Hay rise to the occasion to pull off a fun, and funny, interpretation, 1960s style.
Things get off to a rather dire start with Mary DeCarlo as the Duchess, clutching her cigarette holder almost as awkwardly as her dialogue; but she, happily, is the exception. While the cast shows varying degrees of comfort with the material, the majority of them tackle it with enthusiasm, if not necessarily polish, and noticeably improve as the play progresses. Robin Stift as Dromio of Syracuse and Daniel Harward as Dromio of Ephesus must be commended for their mastery of both their dialogue and their stuntwork: nailing four hundred-year-old wordplay while leaping over a cafe table and pratfalling one's heart out is a challenge even for those with more than eight weeks of preparation. Likewise, Jason Singer as Angelo and Judy Feingold (also playing the Abbess) as the Courtesan deserve credit for enlivening two relatively minor roles with excellent comic timing and, amazingly, credible Jersey and Brooklyn accents. Amy-Helene Carlson, however, is the highlight of the main cast as Luciana, armed with bad love advice from her vintage Seventeen magazine, in a sweetly hilarious performance that both fleshes out her role and perfectly captures the show's intended aesthetic.
The production is set in the early 1960s, a time period known for iconic fashions. Unfortunately, costume designer Jill Keys does not seem to take full advantage of this colorful era. A perfect example of this phenomenon is the costume change of Rose Fairley as Adriana: first appearing memorably in an eye-watering paisley maxi dress almost as loud as she is, she then re-enters in a bland red cocktail number that could date from any point in the last fifty years. Several other costuming choices are likewise inoffensive while missing a chance to exploit a real sense of the time. There are a few grace notes, however: the Duchess's costumes lend her an air of class by way of Audrey Hepburn; shady merchant Balthasar looks one music cue away from snapping his fingers and rumbling with both the Sharks and the Jets; Luciana's sexy librarian style perfectly complements her adorable yet socially awkward portrayal; and the worn shoes of Team Syracuse bespeak their travels in search of their long-lost family members. While the overall look fails to exploit its full potential, it doesn't fall too short of the mark, either.
A similar “good enough” aesthetic governs the set design, created by set designer Alexander Petit Olivieri. Taken by itself, it's a clever interpretation: signs in Turkish and some Middle Eastern influences on the architecture demonstrate the multiculturalism of the Mediterranean, and the stained walls, numerous advertisements, and colored lights evoke a definite sense of the urban decay-by-day of a bustling 20th-century city. However, this multiculturalism is referred to almost nowhere else (the costuming and accents are a very American 60s), and given the reportedly well-off status of the characters, one wonders why, exactly, they all hang out at such a hole-in-the-wall. Nevertheless, the decision to dress the generic street scene on the thrust stage as an outdoor cafe remains an inspired choice, providing a plausible meeting place as well as furnishing everyone with enough seats/blunt objects. Olivieri's set certainly has character; its main fault is that it simply seems out of line with the rest of the play.
When given a cast inexperienced with Shakespeare, perhaps the temptation would be to keep the staging simple and focus on the language. Fortunately, director Rosemary Hay avoids this impulse and takes full advantage of The Comedy of Errors' slapstick plot to include plenty of physical comedy, all the way from epic brawls to the smallest eyeroll from the cafe's waitress, who must reset all the chairs on the set again. Even when the gags (or the actors' pulled punches) miss their mark, there are enough of them that the energy of the cast easily carries through the misfires. Cartoonish sound effects and random dance numbers nod to the 60s zeitgeist, but Hay's strength (aided by fight director Mike Cosenza and movement consultant/choreographer Rudy Caporaso) is clearly the well-choreographed pratfall: the somewhat anachronistic but screamingly funny slow-motion fight scene among Dromio and Antipholus of Ephesus, Doctor Pinch, a Bible, a length of rope, and a chair is easily the highlight of the show. The Rule of Funny seems to be Hay's guiding factor, for good or ill. One may wonder why Dromio of Ephesus is re-enacting his conversation with Antipholus of Syracuse dressed as a highwayman, or Adriana has been complaining about her husband's absence when she has clearly just returned from a shopping expedition laden with a truly impressive number of bags, or why Doctor Pinch looks like an Italian cardinal but sounds like a Southern televangelist, but one cannot deny the chuckles that ensue.
That reaction holds for the show in general. The 2011 Classical Acting Academy's The Comedy of Errors is an ambitious effort whose cast is not quite up to the challenge – or at least, not yet. For a freshman effort, it's a promising start, and still highly enjoyable.