Madcap Comedy of Errors

I finally got myself out of the house to catch the last performance of Propeller Theatre Company’s touring production of The Comedy of Errors at the Huntington, directed by Edward Hall. I was hesitant to go because I’m generally leery of productions of Shakespeare (or opera for that matter) that try to shoehorn in a contemporary setting or genre. In this case the contemporary setting was a sort of amalgam of Mexico and Texas and the genre was slapstick, but since the play was Shakespeare’s highly farcical comedy the approach certainly wasn’t at odds with the text.

For the most part the setting worked well, imbuing the proceedings with a colorful zaniness. The production supplements the text with occasional anachronisms (mostly in the form of asides) with references including (in the Boston edition anyway) mentions of Sarah Palin as “a devil woman” along with the Bruins’ recent Stanley Cup win, but they don’t overly distract. Casting Doctor Pinch as a gospel tent revivalist was an inspired stroke, although purists may decry the completely interjected singin’ and dancin’ gospel number that sticks out just a bit too much from its surroundings; but it’s a fun and flashy moment that is in keeping with the flow of the production in spirit, if not in pacing.

The same could be said for the production as a whole. Although the cast is uniformly appealing and the scenes are full of laughs, in general the staging feels somewhat haphazard, freely mingling bits of slapstick, mime, and comedic sound effects willy-nilly. This is madcap comedy, very much in line with Monty Python where the true hits are accompanied by occasional bits of dullness, and everything in between. The comparison to Monty Python seems particularly apt, given the company’s apparent actor-created approach to productions.

But to overanalyze seems petty, and after some initial slowness of exposition the rest of the production zips along. It’s interesting to see how American critics can’t seem to help focusing beyond the visceral appeal, whether it be Brantley’s condemnation of the slapstick when the production hit New York in March in which he makes way too much of the policeman/nightstick and the evangelist/lighted sparkler gags as symbols of “physical abuse”, or The Hub Review’s over-analysis of the fact that they’re an all-male troupe, when in reality (for this production at least) the “drag queenery” serves the same perfectly obvious and prosaic function as it does with Monty Python: that the female characters are simply much funnier when it’s the boys playing the women. (Just to round out the reviews, I suppose I should also mention Don Aucoin’s “review” in the Globe which, as so often the case these days, is content to recap rather than actually review Comedy, although to be fair his review of Richard III is better.) The British critics, perhaps since Shakespeare permeates their country more fully than ours, seem to do a better job of just enjoying it for what it is, and in the end I was certainly won over. I’m not convinced that their slasher-movie take on Richard III would equally successful, but I’m much more interested in seeing it. Even though I’m too late for that, hopefully they’ll went their way back to Boston before too long. And in case anyone is curious, the current productions have returned to London and are playing at the Hampstead Theatre through July 9.

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