Monday, June 13, 2011

Shakespeare in Drag

I can go a whole year without seeing a single production of Shakespeare. This past week with my wife I saw two, both staged at Boston’s Huntington Theatre by England’s Propeller Theatre Company—an all-male troupe that “drags” Shakespeare kicking and screaming into the 21st century. In a previous post, I sang the praises of Propeller’s Richard III. Saturday evening we saw The Comedy of Errors. After reflection, my judgment is mixed.

It is a comedy of mistaken identity, involving two pairs of twins—twin masters both named Antipholus paired with twin slaves both named Dromio—separated in childhood by a shipwreck and unknown to one another in adulthood. Of course, they end up in the same city and become confused, to each other, to third parties, and to themselves. It’s what the 20th century called a great, big, old identity crisis. Based on two comedies by the Roman playwright Plautus, Comedy was moved by Shakespeare to the religiously significant city of Ephesus. This was not done on a whim, apparently. Literary critics point out that a key female character faithfully represents St. Paul’s views on marriage as laid down in Ephesians.

The English language has changed since Shakespeare’s day, and our modern ears have grown deaf to subtleties that made Shakespeare’s contemporaries howl with laughter. So to make The Comedy of Errors or any other Shakespearean comedy funny—to bring the Bard’s subtle puns to life—requires making situations as clear as a bell and then piling on the physical comedy. While there is much about the Propeller performances that is downright brilliant, gut-wrenchingly hilarious by any standards, much of the comedy involving women devolves into a drag show. I feel like an old fogy saying so, but I wonder if Propeller director Edward Hall didn’t lose his way here, making Comedy of Errors an errant comedy. Did Elizabethan troupes exclude female actors because men playing women is just plain funny? My guess is no, the reasons were more complex and probably culturally based.

The central female character in Comedy, Adriana, wife of one Antipholus, is a prancing match for any drag queen, as played by Robert Hands. By contrast, David Newman plays her sister, Luciana, straighter and, for my money, funnier. She/he is pictured above wielding martial arts gear and earns the loudest laugh in the whole night when she freezes in mid-karate kick, leveling one of the Dromios. Meanwhile, the Courtesan (Kelsey Brookfield) is a Playboy Bunny, complete with ears and cotton tail. The performance by Brookfield, without its sly wink at sadomasochism, would not be that funny at all.

Most disturbing to my eye was the Abbess (Chris Myles), the one overtly Christian figure in the play and the surprise appearance who resolves all the identity confusion in Act V. The Abbess proves to be the mother of the Antipholus twins and ends the play leading both masters, both slaves, and their women folk into the convent, symbolizing reconciliation.

The Abbess is played in winged wimple, short dress, fishnet stockings, and high heels by a man with a five o’clock shadow and no trace of female make-up. The effect is both devilish and disconcerting. I did not expect a pro-Catholic production by an edgy British Shakespeare company, and Hall is an equal-opportunity anti-clerical; he also sends up the Evangelical preacher man of tent revivals in the role of Dr. Pinch. Although I feel like a prig saying so, I confess a deep confusion as the play came to a close and the Abbess served as both the butt of a crude visual joke and the plot device that Shakespeare uses to resolve the conflicts he has set up.

The Comedy of Errors raises deep questions about human identity. Early on, one of the Antipholuses, searching for his twin and his mother, says:

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother, 
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.

Such language—poetic, profound—can be found throughout the script. Beneath the physical comedy, this Comedy concerns the deep divisions in our nature and the confusions that arise when we don’t even recognize ourselves, much less each other. To bury these questions beneath a pile of indiscriminate physical comedy, which to some degree undermines Shakespeare’s clear intent, is to bury light beneath a bushel of yucks, some of which are pretty yucky.

I’m sure some readers of this post will think, Lighten up, and I suppose there is a school of comedy that says, Anything for a laugh.

But maybe not anything.

Why didn’t Propeller’s treatment of Richard III disturb me, when it also does as Shakespeare himself did, putting men in women’s roles? You’ll have to read my rave review here.

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