A few years ago, I took a trip to Memphis to visit Beale Street and see the birthplace of the blues. I found a Beale that's depressingly kitschy and sterile and commercialized, all shine and no soul. But the next day a snowstorm hit the city. Everyone ditched the tourist traps and ran out onto the sidewalks, throwing snowballs and laughing like kids, mocking a grown-up world that has forgotten how to relax and rebel. The true spirit of the blues was back for a moment, nudged awake for a whimsical riot that I was fortunate enough to catch.
If Beale covered the blues in a fine layer of dust, time has shoved Shakespeare six feet under. It takes a force of nature to rekindle the spirit of Elizabethan theater back to relevance, to the kind of genuine heart that I saw in that Memphis snowstorm. Luckily for Missoula, the University of Montana School of Theatre and Dance's reimagining of The Comedy of Errors packs a hurricane of energy and revelry.
I won't waste a lot of time talking about the plot. Shakespeare's comedies tend to rework a few tropes: mistaken identity, gender confusion, social meltdown and riotous romance. Two sets of twins, separated at an early age, grow up living separate lives until years later when fate brings them back together. It's in that space of confusion when no one knows who's who that gives rise to this classically tangled story. Hardly a scene goes by when someone isn't mistaken for someone else to increasingly absurd consequences, until everyone is convinced they've either gone crazy or been enchanted by Lapland sorcerers.
Director Greg Johnson's version of Comedy takes place on a tropical island where daily life is a nonstop disco dance party. I gotta admit, at first I was worried. As a diehard Willophile, I didn't want a random and gimmicky set that failed to inform the story. But as the play unfolds, the significance becomes clear: Comedy's storyline is so outlandish that only in an environment like some isolated beachfront community where everyone spends their lives dancing until dawn, three-sheets-to-the-mushroom-patch, can its events cling to any shred of believability.
Here's a bit of what you're in for: A mixture of '70s and contemporary dance music, complete with groovy disco lights and an old-school DJ in a jumpsuit. Flashbacks played out by floppy and frenetic puppets. A set design somewhere between a haunted mansion in the Deep South and Candy Land. Witch doctors, dreadlocks, love quadrangles, wooden swords, a giant fish and Callan Berry dressed up like something out of Dexter's Laboratory.
I remember the good old days when Shakespeare was boring.
For all its outlandish spin, this unabridged production stays ruthlessly true to the language. The actors' enthusiasm is infectious. The lead roles, played by Kelly Bouma, Steve Hodgson and Jacob Sefcak, simply soar, and the rest of the cast is not far behind. The risqué elements are handled with a nice balance of class and sexiness, milking a lot of comedy gold out of the better-written scenes. Where the humor occasionally falls flat, you only need to wait a few beats for things to pick up again. Above all, the show is spirited and playful from start to finish, and it's this very playfulness that evokes the kind of renaissance of vibrancy Shakespeare deserves.
The Comedy of Errors highlights the persistence of youth and how much childishness and simplicity linger on into adulthood, for good or bad. Johnson's staging decisions compliment this emphasis nicely. (At one point I found myself thinking this is how things would've been if the characters in Lord of the Flies had grown up to create a semi-stable society on their island.)
The production deftly avoids the particularly Shakespearian temptation of taking itself too seriously. Its raw display of psychedelic cartoonery might offend more scholarly sensibilities, and who knows, maybe I'll have my Globe card revoked for approving of these shenanigans. Any body of work great enough to survive popularity for four centuries is going to breed passionate, stubborn and perfectly valid opposing opinions about how it should be handled. But as Balthazar says, "In debating which was best, we shall part with neither." If you want serious Shakespeare, I say stick to King Lear and let the comedies play out as absurdly as they are written.
The Comedy of Errors continues at the Masquer Theatre in the PAR/TV building on the UM campus Thu., May 9, through Sat., May 11, at 7:30 PM. Tickets $10-$16.