Monday, May 3, 2010

The Comedy Of Errors (Spring: 1990)

The decade had turned. I was so ensconced in the URI Theater Department that it might as well have been a cult. I was about to dive deeper into that commitment, discovering a love of Shakespeare that continues to this day.

John Neville-Andrews is a British actor who is also something of a Shakespeare scholar. He headed The Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC which was affiliated with The Folger Library, the leading American Shakespeare collection. At one point he was married to Helen Mirren. He was a dashing natty dresser, a raconteur and a sort of Vaudevillian, a library of bits and stage play.

He charmed everyone immediately.

I'd never done any Shakespeare. I'd had to read something in high school and I think I'd seen a traveling educational production or two but I really came to this production with a blank slate.

'The Comedy Of Errors' filled that slate up pretty quick.

The double set of twin brothers at the core will show you how low Shakespeare would stoop in order to get laughs. Really, Bill? Two sets of identical twins, servant and master, separated at birth, reunited only after mistaken identity wreaks all sorts of havoc? If you tried to pitch this as a movie idea today you would get laughed out of the room.

But you rehearse those lines and put them up in front of an audience and magic inevitably occurs.

Two wonderful actors played the Dromio servants, Mitchell Fain and James Simon. Also two of the funniest smartest most awesome friends you could ever have. I was paired with Anthony Cinelli, another fantastic actor, as the two Antipholus'. He was much taller than I was and had an aquiline nose. They created a false nose for me which was amazingly lifelike and I wore lifts in my shoes so I would appear to be taller.

Neville-Andrews decided to set the play just before WWI in some Middle Eastern desert exotic desert locale. So our costumes, much like "Hay Fever" two years prior, were impossibly elegant suits and gorgeous cocktail dresses. I matched my fictional long lost twin in a dashing white linen suit and felt like Fred Astaire as I went up and down the wide (seemingly) pink marble staircase of the luxury hotel where all of the mix-ups took place.

There was a working fountain downstage left with a statue in it. Again, the design team outdid themselves as we were enveloped in an architectural dream of a hotel.

For the first time in my tenure at URI, however, I was stuck onstage with a dud of an actress. I don't remember her name and I wouldn't use it if I did because I am very protective of even the worst member of my tribe.

But this was extreme. She really had no business being onstage. But this goes to show you how great Shakespeare is. Sure it would have been great if some wonderful actress had taken that role and run with it. But not even a rank amateur could ruin the perfect structure of this lightweight early work from Billy Boy from Avon.

I can still see Mitchell and James in their matching outfits, more like chauffeurs than anything else. There were pratfalls, slamming doors, fistfights, you name it. I remember the process being rather effortless because the four of us carried much of the play and we all knew our shit very early on.

Neville-Andrews had a light touch and stayed out of our way for the most part. Or at least that's how I remember it. Mitchell and James might see things a little differently. Having been directed only by Kimber and Judith over my first two years I was excited to garner some new input. And while he was very good it only cemented how lucky I was to have such talented directors to work with.

Somehow the communal partying of "How To Succeed" had mellowed a bit. Perhaps the group realized they were out of control and collectively pulled it back a little bit. Perhaps the presence of an outsider at the helm kept everyone on their best behavior.

Or perhaps the cast couldn't quite gel because we had to ignore the central female performance. Chemistry is a tricky thing especially when you throw in the language wild card in a Shakespeare play. We had to expend so much energy to keep the momentum of the play going around her scenes we might have just been a little too worn out to party.

No comments: