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On Opening Night, the Bard’s Version of “Noises Off” Brings Down the House

The Comedy of Errors” is directed by Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s Geoff Kent, actor, director, CSF’s nationally known fight director, who brought us a unique vision of “Midsummer’s Nights Dream” and last season’s Iago in “Othello.”  Geoff played one of the key comic roles in “Noises Off,” the farce that has been called the funniest play ever written.  So perhaps we should not be surprised at the unique direction Geoff and the players have taken with the Bard’s own earlier attempt at insanely funny farce in a play about loss of identity employing two sets of identically named, identical twins.

Into his “The Comedy of Errors,”  Shakespeare incorporated key aspects of two comedies by the Roman playwright, Plautus, about twin brothers, the one set identical and the other a sort of mythical virgin birth story, where Jupiter fathers a son, the future Hercules, alongside an already existing male fetus in an already pregnant mom.  Shakespeare further added to these two plays aspects of a Greek romance that became the basis for the first of his late romance plays, “Pericles.”  

In doing so the Bard transformed the “The Comedy of Errors into a family story.  The story is about two sets of identical twins separated when just tiny babes, two sets of boys, by a mighty storm at sea, and how they were reunited 33 years later with their mother and father in Ephesus on the east coast of modern Turkey, far across the Mediterranean from their original home in Syracuse.

In adding a father and mother into the play, and relating up front, in detail, the sad story told by their father of their separation, Shakespeare turned Plautus’ stories into a deep family story.  And by resetting the story of their reunion in Ephesus, the Ephesus of Paul’s story of his weird experience in the New Testament “Acts of the Apostles,” Shakespeare’s story picked up strong Christian elements (and language) concerning both family and magic.  

So too here, in all probability, did he adapt the story of the mighty storm Paul encountered on his way to his trial in Rome, perhaps the origins of the storm imagery so infused in Shakespeare’s plays through to his last, “The Tempest.”  

In adapting Plautus, Shakespeare had also added to the original separated brothers in his main plot source, a second set of identical brothers to be their servants.  The brothers were both named Antipholus and their twin servants both named Dromio.

So Shakespeare’s initial Classical inspiration, Plautus’ two plays, and the Greek romance, too, are all about identity, and especially the psychological trauma that comes out of a perception of loss of identity.  It was a loss of identity that Shakespeare must have felt personally, growing up in an era when one’s religious identity and that of his family hung in the balance between the Reformed and the Old Faith both of which each claimed for itself the name of the true Christian faith.   

If this gives you some idea of the possible complexity of the play in the author’s imagination, CSF’s version takes it several steps deeper in combining both farce and romance.

Carolyn Holding (Antiphola of Syracuse) with Lindsey Kyler (Dromia of Syracuse) Photo by Jennifer M Koskinen
Carolyn Holding (Antiphola of Syracuse) with Lindsey Kyler (Dromia of Syracuse)
Photo by Jennifer M Koskinen

Geoff Kent reconceptualizes the Comedy by making a key change in casting cutting to the center of this question of identity, central to the play:

For the first time in what is known of its documented production history (aside from a loosely related film knockoff, “Big Business”) the two sets of twins are cast as girls, not boys.

This solves some knotty problems for modern audiences changing the whole nature of the play in the process. 

The main problem of the play for modern audiences is the degree and nature of the slapstick.  In Shakespeare’s original casting, the Ephesian brother, married to a loving, but insecure wife, and the single Syracusan brother, arriving almost immediately after his Syracusan father, are repeatedly confused, as are the two servants, each by each other and by the wife and her unmarried sister (another Shakespeare addition) and all the other inhabitants of the town.

The utter frustration and strangeness of this confusion drives everyone to the point of insanity and the servants especially receive the short end and are both physically and verbally abused.  This Three Stooges like abuse, never directly shown body-wise, nevertheless, strains our credulity and sympathy.

But if instead the two sets of sisters in the CSF adaptation comically swing their heavy handbags around or clobber each other with French baguettes which keep disintegrating in their hands, the comic gendering touches both broaden the variety and soften the blows.

Another gender bending effect is on the relation between the two twin sisters and the original Shakespearean Ephesian wife and her sister now transformed by CSF into an emotional house husband, who passes his time waiting for his errant wife as a frustrated artist and his more rational brother.  In the central lockout scene, the Ephesian sister twin and her servant are locked out of their house while the Syracusan sister now dines above with her supposed husband and brother.

Here the gender switching really adds depth.  The Syracusan sister, falling for the rational brother in this three way ‘menage a trois’, takes us into territory that the Shakespearean casting could never imagine.  In no way in the original twin brothers version, could the relationship be played out as uninhibitedly between the wife’s sister now transformed into the husband’s brother and her supposed brother-in-law transformed into the Syracusan sister, as she the now tall thin blond proud visiting Syracusan sister does in the CSF version.  

Modern Family” on steroids, the inversion takes off like no other production ever.  Unlike the lucky many who are coming to the play for the first time, your reviewer had to deal with this insane transformation as he viewed the performance.

To add to the CSF conception the setting is 1930s France, Folies Bergere style, with one of the key performers in drag in the role of the Courtesan.  This reinforces the strangeness as does the weird miking.  There was also something wrong with the loudness and echoing in the miking especially evident in the first acts.  But on further thought afterwards this added to both the strangeness and possibly caused one to strain more to follow the rapid dialogue.  

After the intermission, as typical of Shakespeare and most plays, the CSF production really takes off.  A brief appearance of the father of the twins as Maurice Chevalier reminds us of the family nature of the play.  

The father’s life, we now recall, is forfeit since he had entered and identified himself as a Syracusan merchant, with Syracuse and Ephesus in the midst of a fratricidal, brotherly trade war.  The playwright is preparing us for the Shakespearean surprise in the final act.

Rolling into the action, we soon encounter a mad German Dr. Strangelove type and his crew from the local Sanitarium and the laughter begins to erupt visibly from the audience as in a true “Noises Off” like play.  Carried off to be exorcised and tortured, the Ephesian set of twins suddenly seems to reappear, then after a sword fight escape for sanctuary into an Abbey that suddenly appears out of nowhere.  

But it is really the Syracusan pair who has resurfaced, attempting to flee the Satan bewitched city, who now fly headlong into the Abbey instead.  So when the Ephesian husband and the Duke, arriving to the “sorrow place of execution with the father, near the ditches of the Abbey” are confronted again with a second escape, now by the Ephesian set of sister and her servant, everyone must believe they have eaten strange roots.

Here I will leave you to experience the Shakespearean surprise and the Abbess who figures it all out, the strange backdrop music that accompanies each entry and exit to the Abbey and the last lines of the play that tell all, “Not One Before the Other.”     

Now go and enjoy this amazing experiment by Geoff Kent and the players brought to you by Timothy Orr and CSF.  Take your kids and bond over this generational production.

About Sid Fox

Sid Fox renewed his interest and study from his Hebrew School days (where he was inspired by Deborah Pessin's insightful series 'The Story of the Jewish People') when he read James Michener's "The Source". Sid eventually taught a two semester Sunday class for adults at their home when their children were at Sunday School. It was based on 15 years study of the Bible, the three hundred years of modern research and Biblical Archaeology areas he continued to pursue as he branched out to Shakespeare, the Classics and other interests.

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