Dramatis Personae - Part II

Here are the last of my reviews from the Stratford Festival of Canada: An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde and The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare... who as far as I can tell, did not have a sister, nor was he one.

The Comedy of Errors - by Mel Brooks

The only thing missing from Stratford's production of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors was somebody saying, "Walk this way," and then exiting Stage Left with a limp or a hitch and everybody following along. Other than that, they went for the full-tilt broad farce that this play really needs and pretty much hit all the marks, if not the Marx Brothers.

The plot is a simple one that gets complex when it's described: two sets of identical twins who don't know about their own counterparts get confused by people and end up being accused of doing things they did or didn't do until at the very end they figure it out and all is set right. Got that? Okay, that's all you need, and let the madness begin. There's lots of opportunities for stock characters, split-second timing, planned ad-libs, inside-Stratford jokes (I didn't get the one about the penguin), and a lot of running gags -- literally. There can't be a moment's pause or it will all seem woefully absurd, so you just keep going on frantically, keep the jokes and the slapstick coming, and the two hours -- the shortest Shakespeare play on record -- go by in a flash. And a bang.

The Stratford production is lavish in bright colors and commedia del arte overtones, and it works very well. The setting -- first century A.D. Greece -- was perhaps the convention because of the original story being from that time, but it was also an unconscious reminder of History of the World, Part I, and it worked as well as the Brooksian effort, except, perhaps with a nod to knowing the age and temperament to the Midwestern audience, without the profanity. The jokes worked and the actors playing the twins looked enough alike that it was easy to accept the mistaken identities premise. The two Dromios -- Bruce Dow and Steve Ross -- could have been twins. The actors playing the Antipholuses not so much; David Snelgrove as Antipholus of Syracuse looked like he was in his twenties, while it would be a generous stretch to say that Tom McCamus was the same age. In a farce, the audience has to be in on the joke that the rest of the cast isn't, so the important thing is not whether or not we the audience believe they can be mistaken for each other; it's whether or not the other characters believe it for it to work. (And I can't help but think there was a subconscious influence on me when I created the characters of Donny and Danny and Eric and Greg in Small Town Boys, but that's another post.)

The first time I saw The Comedy of Errors at Stratford was in 1981 when the director set it in the Old West and used the model of the Maverick brothers for the Antipholus characters and Gabby Hayes as the model for the Dromios. That memorable production set the standard, but this production rose to it, and while I don't really know why they had a six-foot penguin with the sign "Just For the Critics" waddle across the stage, it was still a riot.

PS: Last night as we were leaving the restaurant to go to the theatre, we came upon Graham Greene sitting on a bench enjoying an after-dinner cigarette. I complimented him on his portrayal of Shylock and we chatted about the play and his approach to the character. That's one of the other nice things about doing theatre in a small town; the cast, crew, and audience all mingle together, the known and the unknown. (In 1981 I sat behind Lauren Bacall at a production of Richard III starring Brian Bedford.) It's not unlike the experience at the William Inge Festival in Independence, Kansas; truly "community theatre."

An Ideal Husband: Something Wilde

Who am I to argue with Richard Monette, the artistic director of the Stratford Festival? From the program notes for the Stratford production of An Ideal Husband:
From the time of [Richard Brinsley] Sheridan -- about a hundred years before -- until Wilde, there isn't a single play we produce now. During that hundred years, more people went to the theatre than ever before, but the plays were mediocre. So the works of Oscar Wilde represent a renewal of excellence in English dramatic literature.
If we take Mr. Monette at his word, if it wasn't for Oscar Wilde, the idea of witty, well-written, and socially important English drama may never have been revived, and without his influence, writers such as George Bernard Shaw and those who followed here in North America would never have evolved. It's awfully hard to imagine what writers such as George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and even Neil Simon would have written had it not been for the influence of Oscar Wilde.

That's a pretty bold statement, but when you look at a play such as An Ideal Husband or Man and Superman or even The Importance of Being Earnest, it's hard to argue with it. Combining a satirical look at turn-of-the-20th-century London society and the timeless battle of wits between the sexes, Wilde was able to get audiences to laugh at themselves and their social manners then, and still a hundred years later, get us to do the same.

The plot of An Ideal Husband is pretty straightforward: Sir Robert Chiltern, a member of Parliament who is seen as a man of untarnished virtue, is the victim of blackmail for something he did years before. He coaxes his friend, Lord Arthur Goring, a profligate and playboy, into helping him get out of the jam and keep his wife unaware of the situation. It has all the makings of a door-slamming farce, yet it devotes more time to actually exploring the characters and their situation rather than just have people running around mistaking people for other people or hiding in other rooms. (Fear not; there's a fair share of that going on.) All the while we are treated to a virtual avalanche of Wilde's patented witticisms and epigrams: "Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear." In the end the plot is undone, the blackmailer is defeated, Sir Robert and his wife are reconciled, and Lord Arthur is engaged to be married. All's well that ends well, you know.

What lies beneath, though, is Wilde's insurgent campaign as a feminist and a socialist. His women are always portrayed as equals in terms of character and wit, often out-showing the men in terms of sense and awareness of what they are capable of accomplishing. The fact that the "villain," so to speak, in this play is a woman isn't a slight against her or her sex; it's an affirmation that women are fully capable of being just as conniving as a man and on their own terms. It's clear that even in a farce such as The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde gives his women the full stage to make their case as equals, much to the befuddlement of the "superior" men. That he also uses the conventions of love and marriage isn't so much a nod to the social convention of the times but rather just another arrow in the arsenal to prove that women can get what they want, and if that is happiness in marriage, then it isn't subjugation at all. His influence on other playwrights is also clear: Shaw, for instance with Man and Superman, Saint Joan, and Major Barbara, imbues his women with equal status and strength, often to the awe and shocked admiration of the men.

The second element of this play is the use of politics and corruption as the plot device that drives the story forward. Intrigues about bribery and influence-peddling are just as interesting now as they were then. It's not hard to imagine this play being staged with contemporary names like Jack Abramoff and Randy "Duke" Cunningham in the cast, but certainly neither of them were as classy as Wilde's characters. But it does make the story as true today as it was then.

The Stratford production is a perfect combination of wit, grace, elegance, and dry humor. David Snelgrove as Lord Goring really gets the part of the Wilde dandy; self-aware and even self-mocking. Tom McCamus as Sir Robert plays the part of the wronged politician with the remorse and frustration that allows you to care for him and make you happy to see him rescued from his dilemma. The women are given their full dimension as well by Brigit Wilson as Sir Robert's wife and Dixie Seatle as the blackmailing Mrs. Cheveley. Thankfully the production itself is done in full Victorian glory with set pieces and costumes that reflect the time and place and help the actors portray so well the era that Mr. Wilde satirized so well, knowing that if you're going to make fun of something, you have to give it its due in all its original glory.

Here endeth the dramaturgy. Back to my regular posting of drivel when I get back to work.

Cross-posted from Bark Bark Woof Woof.

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