Josh Epstein, left, and Andrew Cownden in Bard on the Beach’s production of The Comedy of Errors. (photo by David Blue)
It’s summer in Vancouver and with it comes sun, surf and Shakespeare – that is, Bard on the Beach under the iconic red and white tents at Vanier Park. Celebrating its 26th season, the festival serves up an interesting mix this year: A Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labor’s Lost and King Lear, from the pen of the Bard himself, and a contemporary piece, Shakespeare’s Rebel, by local author Chris Humphreys.
Opening night of Comedy of Errors on June 13 saw the always dapper artistic director Christopher Gaze welcoming the crowd under the big tent of the BMO Stage and, for the first time in the history of the festival, acknowledging that the land upon which the tents are pitched for their annual sojourn is ancestral, traditional and unceded aboriginal territory. Deborah Baker of the Squamish Nation gave greetings and performed a traditional drum song.
Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, the shortest in his repertoire, and it contains the zaniest of his plots. It is the tale of two sets of identical twins, one aristocratic, the other, their boy servants, with the pairs separated in the aftermath of a shipwreck. The family patriarch, Egeon, has spent years looking for his lost progeny and servants. His search takes him to the town of Ephesus, where he is captured and sentenced to death (no one is supposed to come to Ephesus without permission) but receives a last-minute reprieve to look for his sons and to find money to pay the fine.
It just so happens that one of the sons and his servant ended up in Ephesus while the other two ended up in Syracuse. Both sons are named Antipholus and both their servants, Dromio – all of this sets the stage for a frenzied journey through mistaken identities, hilarious hi-jinks and the ultimate sibling reunification when the Syracuse pair show up in Ephesus.
But what a journey. Think Edward Scissorhands meets Little Shop of Horrors meets Metropolis, and you have director Scott Bellis’ (who does double duty as Egeon) fantastical steampunk version of this production. What is steampunk? A mix of sci-fi electronics and gadgets set against a pseudo-Victorian era background as stylized by authors like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley.
The production is a bit over the top with its madcap bits and bobs – a hand-eating Venus fly trap, a communal lobotomy by a mad scientist, a creature trying to escape from a boiling soup pot, a Michael Jackson-like moonwalk, a bubble-shooting gun and a flatulation moment – and its frenetic pace. It is mostly fluffy fun although if you are looking for some meaning, there are three love stories intertwined with the humor. Shakespeare purists will probably cringe in their seats. But the opening night crowd was eating it up and this unique approach should bring in younger audiences and make the Bard’s words more accessible to a wider demographic. This reviewer loved it!
The acting is solid from the ensemble cast, many of whom do double and even triple duty in various roles: Ben Elliott as one Antipholus, Jay Hindle as the other, Jeff Gladstone as the mad Dr. Pinch, Andrew McNee as the grunting cook Nell, Daniel Doheny as the chambermaid, Lilli Beaudoin as the foxy courtesan, Jewish community member Josh Epstein as the smuggler, Andrew Cownden as the goldsmith, Sereana Malani as the Ephesean Antipholus’ overbearing wife, Lindsey Angell as her nerdy sister and Anna Galvin as the abbess, who makes her first appearance on stage in stilts. But it is the pint-sized Dromios, played by Dawn Petten and Luisa Jojic, who give the standout performances of the production. In their aviator hats and goggles, they really do look like identical twins. Petten, in particular, takes her role and runs with it with impeccable comedic timing and one of the best “ad lib” lines in the play, “Call before you dig.”
What really makes this production sublime are the visuals. The set is fantastic, a wall of steam-powered widgets, sprockets and gears dominated by a one-handed clock with a mind of its own, all kept in working order by shadowy, silent engineers constantly tweaking the machinery with wrenches and hammers. The play begins with one of the engineers pushing a big red button and, all of a sudden, the empty stage becomes a mélange of color and activity as the cast appears through a smoky haze, some through the many trapdoors in the floor, some out of the bowels of the machines, some appearing to drop out of the sky – all courtesy of community member Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s terrific choreography.
This dreamlike mechanical dance sets the tone for the whole evening. Mara Gottler has outdone herself with the costumes – lots of leather, lace-up boots, corsets, garters, black lace and accessories like aviator goggles, gas masks and leather bat wings. Gerald King’s lighting and Malcolm Dow’s sound design are the icing on this macabre cake.
Just as the action starts with a push of a button so does it end, with the shutting down of the machinery after the final revelations. This is one production that you can just sit back and enjoy, pure and simple fun.
Comedy runs to Sept. 26. For the full Bard schedule and tickets for any of this season’s offerings, visit bardonthebeach.org or call the box office at 604-739-0559.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.