What I learned. . .

Steal from the best: that’s what I learned.

I wish I could say that the 1930’s, New Orleans-at-Mardi Gras setting for our production of

The Comedy of Errors at Great River was my original idea; alas, it’s a direct steal from Jim Edmondson’s productions at the

Oregon Shakespeare Festival/Portland and at PCPA Theaterfest, which brought down the house each and every time and shattered attendance records at both theatres – and, as it turned out, at GRSF as well.

But of course, we inevitably made Comedy our own, riffing on what Jim had established in his productions and embellishing like crazy.  Adding Jack Forbes Wilson as “Harry” the piano player was the second smartest thing I did when I took on Comedy; without Jack and his encyclopedic musical knowledge, his experience as musical director, composer, and accompanist, his sly sense of humor, and his onstage presence throughout, our production might not have succeeded.

I’d avoided producing Comedy at Great River because it’s a play that has never really appealed to me.  It’s Shakespeare’s earliest (and shortest) play, and it always seemed to lack the depth of other of his work – even early comedies such as Dream and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  I’d also seen so many shrill, shtick-filled, Roman-esque treatments of the play I wasn’t sure I had it in me to tackle the script.

Silly me.  Apparently the “shtick-meister within” was pretty close to the surface all along, eager to rear its startling and resourceful head.

What I discovered along the way was the powerful message of forgiveness and reconciliation with which Shakespeare imbues his farce, along with a running throughline about voo-doo, black magic, and the darker arts which only became clear to me around the time we were ready to open.

Though the production was a huge success for the Festival, I know I missed the boat on several of Shakespeare’s sub-themes, and look forward to getting to examine them more specifically the next time I direct the play.

The Comedy of Errors

Great River

Shakespeare Festival

June, 2010

Doug Scholz-Carlson, Christopher Gerson

“Yesterday I saw one of the best productions of a Shakespearean comedy – any Shakespearean Comedy – that I have ever been privileged to see.  The Great River Shakespeare Festival has, once again, provided a masterpiece with its Comedy of Errors.

“The production is filled with perfect moments.  Paul Barnes, the director, is to be commended for his sweeping vision of reconciliation, grace, and redemption that permeates the play.”

“A wild, hilarious ride – Shakespeare on steroids.

“You will probably not recognize these lines from the seldom performed or read Comedy, but mark them well, for director Paul Barnes uses them, (taking broad liberties with the book here and throughout) to provide an added and charming comic unity to the play.

“What Barnes and his players have achieved here, a show of breathless, breakneck pace, perfectly choreographed and composed, and performed as tightly as any orchestral composition, has much to do with the seamless construction of the play.

“The production is transposed from a classical Greek setting to ante-bellum New Orleans, with the actors mostly adopting a broad Southern drawl.  This sort of translation is usually just a cheesy, distracting trick to provide a bit of variety where creative imagination lacks, but here it works to perfection.  The accent somehow clarifies the Elizabethan language, and emphasizes the meter of Shakespeare’s blank verse, which sets the rhythm and marvelously quick tempo of the show.  

“The New Orleans setting is also particularly apt for the stunning visual effect of the show which, as theatre should, combines the best of literature, the written word, and representational art, particularly painting.

“At one point, a propos to I can’t remember what, the narrative is set aside for a riotous series of send-ups to New Orleans and southern icons, Louis Armstrong, Marlon Brando (Stella!), Scarlet O’Hara, Janis Joplin, Elves, you name it.

“In addition to the poetic and visual aspects of the play, there is the sumptuous musical one.  The whole troupe bursts into song at the drop of a hat, and in this show the effect is overwhelming. . .  the troupe’s ensemble made for a grand finale that blew the audience out of their seats for the standing ovation.

“Be prepared for a joyous experience of visual and musical poetry which starts big and fast, building and accelerating to a climax which will leave you dazed, elated, and wondering how old-fashioned theatre can be so powerful.  Be advised to bring your own seat belt.”

     John Edstrom

     The Winona Post

“About the time Elvis and Louis Armstrong make an appearance in The Comedy of Errors at the Great River Shakespeare Festival, one begins to wonder exactly which ideas didn’t stick to the wall.

“Set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, this production is colorful, wild, funny, and as a musical comedy, works quite well.  Is it Shakespeare?  Ah, that is the rub.  It’s an argument that takes place every time a creative company dares something different with the canon.

“Well, this The Comedy of Errors is sure different: Shakespeare with southern accents, gospel songs, and a cavalcade of carousing Mardi Gras celebrants.  It’s over the top.  It’s all over the map.  And it’s highly entertaining.

“Paul Barnes directed this spectacle, and he’s got the usual highly talented lineup of actors to execute it.  Two of the best, Doug Scholz-Carlson and Christopher Gerson, play one set of twins, the servants named Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio Ephesus.  

“Equally good are Michael Fitzpatrick and John Worley as the twins Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus.

“The key to the performances of Fitzpatrick and Worley is the way their normally assured characters react to the confused chain of events that has become their lives.  The Dromios, by contracts, are servants and don’t expect to comprehend or control everything.

“The hilarity is compounded by Tarah Flanagan as the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, and Kate Mazzola as her man-hungry sister.  Flanagan’s character is straight off the set of a Shakespearean “Gone With the Wind.”

“Stephanie Lambourn is wonderful as a French saloon singer, and Jack Forbes Wilson has a nice touch on blues piano.  There’s dancing and physical comedy and the costuming is superb.”

     Tom Weber

     Rochester Post Bulletin

“The Great River Shakespeare Festival The Comedy of Errors is one of the most entertaining Shakespeare productions ever staged at the festival.

“This production, brilliantly directed by Paul Barnes, is clever and creative in concept and turns Shakespeare into one big Mardi Gras celebration.  I’ve seen The Comedy of Errors a few dozen times, and this is my favorite.  What makes this production so fine is every piece of delicate detail added to the script transforms the play into a Broadway-like show.

“The comedy is set in New Orleans and sparkles with a pianist and the cast performing jazz classics and concluding the show with “When The Saints Go Marching In.”  The music fits the comedy so well and enhances the action.  Mardi Gras characters fill the stage and even a funeral procession is added to give the setting flavor and purpose.

“The cast shows off its great singing as well as great acting skills.  There is a moment in this play in which the Mardi Gras feels like a Marx Brothers movie with the introduction of favorite movie moments and actors, including Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, and Forrest Gump.

“All of these marvelous moments add to the over-the-top, silly but delight interpretation of the play.”

     Terry Rindfleisch

     LaCrosse Tribune