Looking for free and fantastical family fun? You’ve found it with Seattle Shakespeare’s “Wooden O” production of The Comedy of Errors.
After so long grief, such festivity! (Comedy of Errors, Act V, scene 1)
The long-awaited return of live theatre is especially festive when it’s as hilarious and well-told a story as this is- and they manage it with only five actors playing all twenty-ish characters! Everyone is craving comedy right now. Seattle Shakespeare delivers it. Plus, outdoor Shakespeare feels safe to produce as we all slowly emerge and adapt from the pandemic-induced tectonic shifts in our artistic cultural landscape. There are Shakespeare-in-the-Park productions of The Comedy of Errors being advertised everywhere right now; this might end up being the most-produced play in America this summer. But this particular production undoubtedly ranks among the very best.
Like the satisfying soreness after a solid workout, it is incredible to once again experience the jaw-ache of well-exercised laughing muscles in a live, communal storytelling experience. With director George Mount’s production, it doesn’t matter if we’re a little out of practice. Audiences are in highly capable slapstick hands. Shakespeare ain't no slouch and this piece is well suited to these players.
The Comedy of Errors is a beautiful, ridiculous release of pent-up energy. If you’ve never experienced this strange and silly romp, get thyself to the play park forthwith! Verily, its title is apt. There is much comedy ensuing from much error. Huzzah.
Prescient as his witches featured in a different play, Shakespeare managed to capture the confusion, stress, exhaustion and identity-crisis of the last year:
Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised? (Comedy of Errors, Act II, scene 2)
Then through the absurdities of love and family and money and mistaken identities, Shakespeare (and George Mount) invites us to a new and brighter world:
And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another. (Comedy of Errors, Act V, scene 1)
For those not familiar with the story, two sets of identical twins (Antipholus and Dromio) get separated from their mirror-versions in a shipwreck not long after their births. When they grow up, one set sets off to seek the other. They land in the town where their twins reside and immediately start getting mistaken for each other. It helps that the mother ended up with one set of twins and the father ended up with the other set, so you are given a reason that each twin has the same name as their brother- also they don’t know if their twins are alive or not, so it’s okay that they don’t figure out the confusion quickly. The audience is in on this absurd joke the whole time, so you get to just sit (or lay back on your picnic blanket) and enjoy.
This being my first taste of Seattle Shakespeare, I went in with no expectations- except being a longtime Shakespearean scholar- and no foreknowledge of these players or designers. Having seen this interpretation of The Comedy of Errors, I can easily admit that I'm a fan. By the end of the show, there was no area of the production that didn’t please.
The entire cast is playful and clear, with well-balanced individual storytelling styles. It is a joy to to watch their cohesive teamwork and astounding versatility.
The greatest standouts are MJ Daly and Rico Lastrapes, who each play their character and their character’s own twin. Boasting exquisite physical and vocal talent, they are compelling, confident comedic actors that fill the large Washington outdoors with ease. Both Daly and Lastrapes display a deeply personalized sense of Shakespeare’s rhythm, as well as the impressive ability to blend Shakespeare’s words and the company’s devised modern flourishes with equal believability.
The other standout, in a production full of wonderful aspects, is the sound design and execution. The music and effects almost become another character in the piece, feeding and supporting the emotion and the jokes. Completely brilliant direction all around.
Whether intended or not, the entire production feels like one of the best celebrations of how Shakespeare might work today, if he were alive and making theatre in 2021. There is the sound of children playing in the park behind the audience, just as you would have heard people playing, shouting or selling wares on the Thames. The exaggerated sound and physicality is choreographed beautifully to communicate storylines to audience members who might not be able to hear- or in Shakespeare’s time, may not have had English as their first language. Admittedly, there is not a large, wooden, O-shaped platform structure housing the queen and her courtiers above the audience, as there would have been in 1621. However, you do shove together close to the stage in the “groundlings” tradition, so the actors can interact directly with the audience- no stage lights or fourth wall separating us. It was also traditional to have a dance at the end of a Shakespearean play- sure it's modern music here, but the spirit of celebration and gratitude are the same. In fact, I’m happy to report that although traditional Elizabethan bear-baiting was not done in Klahanie Park before the show, there were bear-sightings in Klahanie earlier in the day. (These thespians are thorough!)
The fact is, Shakespeare is like the fanny pack of live theatre. Old people think it’s super rad. Young people think it’s uber lame, unless they happen to be hipster or a proud outsider. But love it or hate it, what we can all agree on is that it is completely useful- and once you find good Shakespeare (or a good fanny pack) you’re a convert for life. Shakespeare is musical, varied, timeless, theatrical, adaptable, mobile, cross-cultural, multi-generational and completely royalty-free. An excellent choice for the hurting artistic institutions in America right now. What a pleasure Seattle Shakespeare has given its community by embracing it and sharing such wonderful work and talent.
The “Wooden-O” free summer play series has been delighting Puget Sound audiences since the mid 1990s, but this performance saw a near doubling of their usual audience size. So if you’re itching to go (which you should be), plan to arrive early and check out their “New Dos and Don’ts” page for the reassurance of their thoughtful safety measures.
PRODUCTION TEAM: George Mount (Director and Seattle Shakespeare Artistic Director) Craig Wollam (Scenic Design), Jocelyne Fowler (Costume Design), Robertson Witmer (Sound Design), and Ian Bond (Fight Director/Movement Specialist).
CAST: MJ Daly, Kelly Karcher, Rico Lastrapes, Kate Witt, and R. Hamilton Wright.
Running until August 8, 2021 in parks all around the Puget Sound region. For the list of times, locations and other info, visit Seattle Shakespeare's website.