Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Night in Williamsburg: New Lions Productions presents "Comedie of Errors" at McCarren Park

Just as we did last Saturday, we did a Brooklyn-Shakespeare-in-the-parks double header today, going from the Shakespeare in the Pagoda in Prospect Park to McCarren Park, where the B43 bus waiting for us on Lincoln Road and Ocean Avenue took us quickly enough through Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg to get us right to Manhattan Avenue and just steps away from the 7 p.m. start of a rollicking, wacky and super-energetic Comedie of Errors on the McCarren Park fieldhouse grass.

This hour-long production, so fast-paced that time flew was presented by New Lions Productions, was an adaptation of Shakespeare's lightest and briefest comedy by Lauren Keating, who also expertly directed the fun. Frankly, we weren't expecting that much, but the show really wowed us with its terrific acting, zestful choreography, and masterly comic timing. Even the costumes (designed by Tristan Raines, assisted by Tara DeVincenzo) were standouts.

A or The Comedy of Errors is generally considered an "apprentice comedy" of Shakespeare's, maybe even his first play (its date is uncertain). Because of its emphasis on broad slapstick and low rather than refined verbal pyrotechnics and sophisticated wit, it's not taught very often, but audiences usually love it. As an early 1960s dramafag, we're old enough to know pretty well the Rodgers and Hart musical The Boys from Syracuse and have always adored the song "Falling in Love with Love" from it.

Actually, the play's not just an air-whipped delight; the threat of Egeon's death hangs over the story and the day's events (as in classical Greek plays, Shakespeare has this all take place during one day) from the first scene. And it makes a lot of points about the inherent problems in unequal relationships: master/slave, husband/wife, ruler/subjects, merchant/customers.

Also, not only is it weirdly Christian for its pre-Christian ancient Greek setting, it's extremely weirdly Roman Catholic (people have worry beads, there's an abbess) for Shakespeare's Protestant England.

Of course, that's just our lit-professor self talking, and like most teachers, we're at risk of making this Comedie of Errors we saw tonight - it will again be at McCarren Park on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park next weekend - sound less hysterically funny and entertaining than it proved to be.

It's really a good show for kids, even little ones. (Some of the inadvertent comedy tonight was provided by a little blonde girl about 3 or 4 who seemed desperate to join the action "onstage," and the actors, being skilled comedians, used this to get a few more well-deserved laughs.) In general, we've probably never laughed so much at a Shakespeare staging.

The promo stuff said, "Half the time! Half the text! Double the girls! Double the fun!" and it certainly delivered on those promises. Lauren Keating's sex switch in making the two sets of twins - the separated-and-unknown-to-each-other men named Antipholus and their slaves named Dromio - are here women: Antiphala of Syracuse, played with high spirits by the dynamic Tina Diaz, who garners most of the audience's sympathy for her confusion;

Antiphala of Ephesus, who finds her life up-ended and is an equally funny but more exasperated Nadia Hullett, expert at the slow burn; and their long-suffering, bumbling and gawky (but actually very graceful in their gawkiness) female slaves, played by Claire Morrison (Dromia of Syracuse) and Joyce Miller (Dromia of Ephesus), who are superb physical comedians in the mode of Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Ellen DeGeneres.

The gender reversal takes away a lot of the somewhat annoying sexual attitudes of the play and so the stereotypical shrewish wife Adriana becomes Adriano, who as portrayed by Shane Zeigler, is haplessly inept at establishing male domination of a household that seems to have gone mad.

Matt Lents is very funny indeed as Adriano's clueless, nose-picking brother Luciano (in Shakespeare's text, the sister Luciana) and makes a sympathetic though comically inept Duke. Lents can elicit laughter with a slight gesture, and he also serves well as the door (literally, he plays the role of the door) to his brother's house.

The other actors also are adept in their parts: Anna Marquardt makes a wise-gal Goldsmith (you can only push her so far) and an unhinged Doctor Pinch; Meghan Powe, the most dignified cast member, plays the adapted role of what Shakespeare had as Antipholus of Ephesus's courtesan friend as well as the Abbess, who turns out to be Aemilia, mother of the two Antiphalas;

and Chris Stahl as Egeon, their father, is in some ways the play's moral center, gives a very nuanced performance.

There's amazingly precise and sly choreography (Hannah Bary is credited as dance consultant, Lisa Kopitsky as fight choreography) as well as crucial musical accompaniment by Katie Costello and Amos Fisher, who takes minor roles when necessary.

We're a little tired by now, and it feels like we didn't get across just how entertaining this all was. See it for yourself tomorrow, Sunday or next weekend. Thanks to everyone who made it possible. Oh God, we were going to say something like "It won't be an error to see this," which probably means we're severely tired (it's after midnight as we write this). We really, really liked Comedie of Errors, but we're also exhausted and our eyes are so blurry we can barely see what we're writing.

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