Sunday, May 4, 2008

Lights, Camera, Shakespeare!

I'm beginning to think that Stratford, Ontario has a real rival in The Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In my long experience of going to this venue (a total of four times so far) I have never ceased to be amazed at what is being accomplished there. Who would have thought that such good theater could be found on Navy Pier in Chicago, home to a giant ferris wheel, a number of overpriced tourist shops, an IMAX theater, a Children's Museum, a beer hall, and about six places selling elephant ears (summer only)?

Anyway, about the performance I saw there last night. I had to go to Chicago for a medical conference (I try to fit them in between Shakespeare conferences) and couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit the Pier once again (even though the elephant ear places were not yet open). While not as astounding as the last time I was there (Othello-one of the best performances I've ever seen), the current production of The Comedy of Errors was quite enjoyable.

Actually, this title is perhaps a little inappropriate as the play we all know as The Comedy of Errors only accounted for about two-thirds of what happened on stage. As The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare's shortest play, directors have frequently tried to do something to give the audience their "money's worth". In this case, Barbara Gaines (founder and artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater) went to comedian and writer Ron West to write a "framing" play.

The idea here is that a group of filmakers at Shepperton Studios in London in 1940 have come together to make a film version of The Comedy of Errors as a war effort, to "take the public's mind off of Jerry for a while". They have to do this by using actors who for various reasons are not busy fighting in the war and also have to make the film despite repeated bombing raids on the studio by the Germans. 

They do have Emerson Furbelow, star of that memorable film (fictional of course) "Blood of the Pirate", who hopes to break out of the stereotype of the swashbuckler by playing Antipholus of Syracuse, only to find out about the sword duel that occurs in Act 5 of the play. They have Lord Brian Hallifax, an amazingly conceited Shakespearean actor who has fallen on hard times and hopes to revive his career and parlay it into doing a film of Henry V for the war effort (I guess he didn't know Olivier was already working on this). He is all set to play Antipholus of Ephesus when word comes that Major Phillip Sullivan, that famous American singing sensation who is currently volunteering with the Royal Air Force, has suddenly found that he has a few days between assignments and wants to make his film debut. Of course, with such "star power" the director and producers of the film give the part of A. of E. to him and poor Lord Brian has to be content with playing Dromio of Ephesus (actually a better part in my opinion). Major Sullivan reads the script and finds it "very funny, but I still don't get this Shakespeare crap."

A very funny scene occurs when Lord Brian, as D. of E., suddenly breaks into the "St. Crispan Day" speech from Henry V after he is hit by Major Sullivan (as A. of E.) in Act 4 of the play (the Dromios are constantly being hit by their masters). After the "director" Dudley Marsh (who is also playing Dromio of Syracuse) yells, "Cut!" Lord Brian explains that he had the idea that Dromio would suffer "blackouts" from all the hitting he is receiving and enter a "trance-like" state in which he would recite famous Shakespearean passages. Needless to say, this idea does not go over with Mr. Marsh and the "St. Crispan" speech ends up on the cutting-room floor.

There are many such memorable characters and personal interactions among the filmakers and I could go on about more of them, but suffice it to say that, although the audience does get to see virtually a complete performance of Shakespeare's play (cut very slightly) as the "film" is being shot, the added scenes of the making of the film frame and comment on Shakespeare's work and combine to produce a completely different theatrical event.

Ron West (writer of the added scenes) was asked in an interview (reprinted in the theater program), "What, The Comedy of Errors isn't funny enough for you?". He replied,"It's certainly funny, but as I am a direct descendent of Plautus, whose work Shakespeare stole, I am working on the script solely to right a wrong which was been done to my family about 1,300 years ago."

The play runs in Chicago until June 29. I recommend it if you can make it there.

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