Shakespeare Gone Wild:
Clockwork madness at Bard on the Beach
by Ariel Mo
Last week, Ms. McGee & Ms. Meneilly led the Grade 12 class to see The Comedy of Errors at Bard on the Beach. For two and a half hours we were dazzled by nonstop, over-the-top, did-that-just-happen-I-can’t-breathe theatrics, including exorcism by electrocution, a quick rap/beatbox segment ft. Antipholus & Dromio, some snuff sniffers, and—just as all the chaos exploded into a thrilling climax—a bubble gun shootout.
One might think that, to a crowd of high schoolers, Shakespeare’s elaborate verses and outdated witticisms would be more helpful as in-class sedatives than entertainment. Luckily, for its student matinée on Wednesday, September 23rd, Bard on the Beach had chosen just the right show.
Spattered with brassy colours sure to appeal to any millennial audience, Scott Ellis’ rendering of Comedy was unapologetically cluttered with all sorts of mayhem. In fact, it was every bit as loud, audacious, extravagant, and preposterous as the “slapstick farce” already tries to be.
Okay—maybe it only seemed stunning to me, because I haven’t seen a lot of theatre, but who would’ve ever thought of mixing Shakespeare and steampunk, and to such fantastic(al) results? In his Director’s Notes, Ellis quotes a steampunk website to remind us that the genre is “an eclectic world of cogs and rivets,” “romance … [and] adventure.” The genius marriage saw archetypes like the “intrepid explorer,” the airship pilot, and the “mechanical hybrid” (Antipholus of Syracuse, the Collections Officer, and Dr. Pinch, respectively) stumbling around a set bursting with gears, parts, and “other strange gadgetry.” It was brilliant.
Ellis was supported by an incredible cast (Jeff Gladstone as the quintessential dandy; magnificent Sereana Malani as Adriana; Jay Hindle playing a ridiculous, lurching Antipholus of Ephesus; Lindsey Angell conjured a sweet Luciana; Andrew Cownden, whose Angelo somehow reminded me of a pompous butler; Andrew McNee and Daniel Doheny a.k.a. most ghastly cook and chambermaid ever; and Luisa Jojic and Dawn Petten, as Dromios, gave us the biggest laughs of the whole afternoon), but the highlight was unquestionably Ben Elliot’s spectacular portrayal of Antipholus of Syracuse. I can’t even name just one specific detail of his performance because all I remember is an unending sense of “Wow! Ouch! Whoa!”
Still, the real star of the show was an enormous panel of spinning gears and pipe ladders created by Pam Johnson. This truly marvelous “organism” was not only a versatile set piece, but also the instigator of the whole series of “deranged” mishaps: as soon as the lights went out, one press of its Big Button awakened this “Grand Machine,” and, with it, the whole story. Throughout the production, sooty Engineers would fiddle with its multitude of knobs and switches, bending Time even as it slowly prodded the main characters toward insanity.
Now, the music: it was phenomenal. Malcolm Dow crafted his score through an intriguing mix of sharp, dissonant electronica, “whirrs and purrs”—ostensibly emitted by the machine—and lush, hypnotic ambient. (Disclaimer: I may have misnamed all of those genres.) It was just “mechanical” enough to hold us in the world of steampunk, and just “playful” enough to keep up with the play’s jumble of unrelenting madness, confusion, “crazy chase scenes, [and] falling down.”
Another one of my favourite parts was actually the opening sequence, which involved most (or was it all?) of the characters engaging in an erratic, almost mechanical dance choreographed by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg and shaded in murky flashes from lighting designer Gerald King.
And—the costumes! “Gentle” Adriana first appeared in a gaudy green dress, then switched to a black corset and a sheer lace robe, both stark contrasts to her sister’s schoolgirl ensemble. (Umm… Yeah, that was a little too weird.) The girls’ jewel tones and peacock feathers were further brightened by the others’ dusty blacks, beiges, greys and khakis. Thick eyewear for the Collections Officer (“airships, goggles, and steam”) and a mechanical hand for Dr. Pinch reinforced the steampunk theme, while plague masks evoked Shakespeare’s Middle Ages.
An open letter to Mara Gottler: Wow!
Personally, I adored the Antipholuses’ long coats, which both enhanced their heights in contrast to their bondsmen, and cut two very Sherlockian figures. (*Cough* Ms. Meneilly *cough* Benedict Cumberbatch *cough* Hamlet *cough* October.) Speaking of TV references: Have we just found Hodor’s long-lost sister?!?
Some purist theatregoers may not be amused by this particular interpretation. Once or twice, perhaps, all that noise was a bit hard on the ears. Sometimes Dromio’s antics distracted a little too much from the main dialogue, and the Courtesan’s dominatrix alter ego—while hilariously ironic—seemed to be wearing too many Halloween props. Then again, this was one of Shakespeare’s more frivolous pieces anyway.
Scott Ellis calls The Comedy of Errors “a broken machine,” yet his production of it was anything but: just like how “Shakespeare… runs his story through a series of brilliantly precise, tight and hilarious plot twists,” so too did every piece of immaculately-timed disaster (tfw Antipholus of Syracuse hit that poor Engineer with his own lunch tray) and seamless anachronism (Adriana’s sudden accent—say whaaaat?) in Ellis’ interpretation click just right. It was clockwork-perfect.
An extra note from a student who loves English, but is definitely no actress: I was amazed by how the actors managed to bring out the beauty of the Shakespearean script and make it coherent, all at the same time. As well, Ellis’ choice of presenting several strong female personalities impeccably balanced out those misogynistic elements typical of a play of Shakespeare’s time.
All in all, we had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon of whips and chains, questionable foodstuffs, whirling clocks, lusty maids, Shakespearean puns (I almost couldn’t “understand” them) (right, some things do not get better with age), and lots and lots of spankings.
Thank you, Ms. Meneilly & Ms. McGee, for taking us to see the play! Thanks also to Bard on the Beach for a 26th year of wonderfulness, and to the original Bard for this original series of unfortunate events.
(cover image via | all quotations were taken from Bard’s programme notes)