Friday, July 5, 2019

Experience Experience’s The Comedy of Errors

Steven Grawrick, Ty Hendrix, Bobbi Kaye Kupfern, and Neil
Wade Freer. Photo by Casey Campbell photography.

By Tina Arth

Scarred by too many dry-as-dust high school and college assignments in the distant past, I am still always a little surprised when I really enjoy one of Shakespeare’s plays. The secret, of course, is that these works were meant to be performed live, not read as literature – especially the comedies. Experience Theatre Project’s take on The Comedy of Errors is a perfect example – adjectives like “rollicking,” and “zany” don’t begin to do justice to the shamelessly broad physical comedy that director Brenda Hubbard draws from a thoroughly uninhibited cast that fully commits to the Bard’s shortest (and arguably silliest) comedy. It’s being performed in a series of outdoor venues (I saw it opening weekend at Beaverton’s Westside Shakespeare Festival; the rest will be at local wineries), and the production will change slightly to adjust to the layout of each location.

A quick if incomplete synopsis clearly makes the argument for the “silliest comedy” title. Start with two sets of identical twins born in Syracuse and separated at birth – one set the sons of the merchant Egeon and his wife Emilia, the other set poor boys purchased as slaves for their sons. The parents have inexplicably given the same name to each twin, so Dromio and Dromio are slaves to Antipholus and Antipholus. A disastrous tempest at sea separates them, leaving one set (Antipholus and Dromio) with Egeon in Syracuse, while the other two boys (Antipholus and Dromio) end up in Ephesus with Emilia. Now grown, Antipholus (of Syracuse) ventures out with Dromio in search of his brother. When they do not return, Egeon sets out to find them, landing in Ephesus – and the play actually begins with Egeon relating this tale of woe to Solinus, Duke of Ephesus.  This ideal setup for mistaken identities is complemented by the puzzling coincidence that both Antipholuses (Antipholi?) and both Dromios wear identical clothing. With both sets of twins unknowingly in the same city, identically clad and with the same names, the stage is set for two acts of outrageous mistaken identity, including Antipholus (of Syracuse) dining with Adriana, Antipholus (of Ephesus’) wife , while flirting outrageously with Luciana, Adriana’s sister (one wonders how Shakespeare resisted the urge to make the women twins, both named Adriana!). Adriana’s lusty kitchen wench mistakes one Dromio for the other and shamelessly woos him. Courtesans, gold chains, bungled sorcery, and lots of genuine slapstick (the Dromios, in particular, are repeatedly slapped, kicked, and beaten at every turn) lead, ultimately, to a series of happy reunions.

The Comedy of Errors is ideally suited to the sometimes noisy or distracting environment frequently encountered in outdoor venues. Hubbard’s direction gives her cast free rein to play up every ridiculous moment, and they take full advantage – even if the audience does not hear every word (although the cast does a great job of vocal projection) the physical comedy and deliberate pacing ensure that we’ll be able to follow every twist in the absurd tale. Both Dromios (Steven Grawrock and Neil Wade Freer) are veteran Shakespearean actors who excel at the kind of over-the-top mugging so familiar to 16th and 17th century audiences. Ty Hendrix and Walter Petryk (as Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus, respectively) capture their characters’ fundamental differences beautifully - although physically identical, Hendrix ‘s philandering tendencies contrast nicely with Petryk’s somewhat muddled sincerity.

Leslie Renee (the Courtesan) is new to Shakespeare, but has picked up the essence quickly – she gives her performance just the right note of sardonic seductiveness. Sarah Aldrich captures the fury and feminism of the fiery, jealous Adriana, in stark contrast to her milder sister Luciana, deftly and demurely played by Hannah Lauren Wilson.  Bobby Kaye Kupfner plays double duty as Abbess/Emilia and Luce the kitchen wench, and her lascivious Luce unquestionably draws the most laughs per minute of stage time.

In the outdoor environment, sets are not terribly elaborate, but there’s enough done with walls, platforms and curtains to establish a sense of place and time. Costume designer Allison Johnson helps to give the play a timeless air, with outfits appropriate to the roles but not evocative of any specific era.

The five winery performances (Helvetia Vineyards July 5-6-7, Plum Hill Vineyards July 12-13-14, Fairsing Vineyard July 19-20-21, Durant Vineyards July 26-27-28, and Torii Mor Winery August 2-3-4) offer plenty of opportunities to experience the fun of this summer’s Experience Theatre Project. Show times vary, so be sure to visit for reservations and detailed information.

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