For the fourth time since 1995, The Comedy of Errors is at Bard on the Beach, and once again it has a completely different look and feel. This time the theme is steampunk, a style of science fiction that imagines an alternate history where steam powers the modern age, as advanced analogue technology is paired with Victorian-inspired costuming.
The set is one hulking steel machine with cogs and pipes and who knows what – it’s a striking presence. The costumes are fantastic, and perhaps the highlight of the show, with various expressions of Victorian glamour on dark tones with the occasional bright highlight, replete with eye-catching elements of science fiction and fantasy. The score also adds to the mechanical feel of the play and brings life to the transitions. Certainly, the production design of this show deserves high praise for its take on steampunk – from making gunfights sillier with phasers to making a doctor’s instruments all the more gruesome. Even the plants have teeth on this stage.
The design and the choreography make the most of the darker themes of this farce, so the elements of mental illness, death and chaos are brought to the fore. There are some unorthodox choices, certainly, but director Scott Bellis makes all the pieces fit the theme well enough that Shakespeare’s words never seemed out of place in the quirky world onstage.
But it’s possible the actors, and the plot itself, were being upstaged by the design, as the look is more memorable than the humour.
At its heart, The Comedy of Errors is a classic Shakespearean farce. It features identical twins, separated in infancy, who find themselves in the same city but have no idea the other twin is nearby. They’re both named Antipholus and both have a servant named Dromio – the servants are also twins and just as impossible to distinguish. It’s a slapstick comedy of mistaken identities, as more and more things go wrong while even the two Antipholuses can’t tell the Dromios apart, and vice versa.
The Dromios, played by Luisa Jojic and Dawn Petten, are particularly funny, as they both have a real knack for slapstick. The two performers are also very successful at appearing similar in mannerism and voice – it’s hard to tell them apart from the back row. They keep the energy up throughout the play, which is fortunate as the two Antipholus twins aren’t quite as funny. A lot of the comedy works well – some of the subtle jokes are the best, such as how the loony chambermaid, played by Daniel Doheny, distractedly dusts everything – but there are quite a few jokes and antics that fall flat.
Perhaps the aesthetics outshine the humour and substance, or perhaps they make up for it. This rendition of The Comedy of Errors is certainly entertaining and looks amazing, but for one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies, it could have made us laugh a little more.
The Comedy of Errors will be in Vanier Park with the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival until September 26; the schedule changes every week so check the festival’s website for details. http://bardonthebeach.org/2015/comedy-of-errors