Author: Penny Metropulos
This is absolutely the worst production of any kind I’ve ever seen in over twenty years of attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. My frustration stems from the fact that I wasn’t warned this was a radical departure from the original script. If I’d come prepared for something different my reaction might have been different. As it was, I was devastated.
The most major flaw in this production is that it makes too many changes. Sometimes changes are good: they can refresh a tired play, modernize it, bring forth a new perspective, make you see it in a new light. But this version attempts far too many radical changes and utterly destroys anything worthwhile in the original play.
The first change is that this uses a Western setting, moving the characters from Europe to the American Wild West. If that had been the only change, this could have succeeded brilliantly. Unfortunately, the director (or directors, as this felt like several conflicting collaborators were involved) chose to all make this a musical. Yes, that’s correct: a musical. The production is filled with music that is not even in Western style, with modern lyrics that don’t use Shakespeare’s poetry, and songs that don’t make sense or add to the production at all.
Now I’m not anti-musical. I love musicals, if they are done well. This was not. While some of the songs were well sung, only one was even slightly memorable, and the rest were indistinguishable from each other. Worst of all, there was no point to these songs. Do cowboys spontaneously break into song? Yeah, that’s what I think about when I think of the Wild West… cowboys singing.
Another flaw was the bizarre introduction of multiple ethnicities into the play. For example, the play was narrated by a Mexican mariachi singer. He often spoke rapid Spanish and his English was so accented he was difficult to understand, ruining the whole point of adding a narrater character. Also included was a Chinese man with similar flaws of speech who strangely read modern-sounding fortune cookie fortunes. Another character was made into an Italian tonic-seller, an awkward combination of immigrant and classic Western quack who seemed utterly out of place and useless.
Through-out the piece modern language was mixed with Western terminology, so that along with with ethnic languages, the audience is expected to follow and understand a confusing variety of styles: Shakespearean poetry, Western drawl, modern singing, Mexican Spanish, Chinese English, Italian English, etc. The result is that it was a real challenge to understand anything: I had to concentrate hard to follow the play, which reduced the humor considerably as I couldn’t relax.
It didn’t help that about half the actors were obviously cast because of their singing abilities rather than their ability to perform Shakespeare. That doesn’t mean they’re bad actors, but performing Shakespeare does require a different kind of talent (making poetry sound like natural speech). This cast butchered what little Shakespeare was left after the changes and additions; I could hardly hear or understand them much of the time, and in an identity farce like “Comedy of Errors” that is not a good thing.
In short, this was a disaster. I laughed exactly four times during the first half, and once in the second. I had not thought it could get worse in the second act, but it did, dwindling into a horrible vaudeville act of slapstick and exaggerated “comic” reactions. It just was not funny. I kept wanting to laugh, but the play gave me nothing. The few times I did laugh were all due to Shakespeare’s witty dialog, not anything new to this production. The fact that the biggest laugh of the night came from someone in the audience sneezing in the silence before the second act shows how everyone was filled with pent-up laughter wanting to be released. (Some people liked the slapstick or the songs, but I was so depressed by the desecration of Shakespeare that I couldn’t enjoy anything. It was merely excruciating, like watching vandals destroy your most prized possession and being helpless to stop them.)
If I’d been warned that this play was so radically different from Shakespeare’s original I might have come prepared and been less critical. I’m sure I would not have liked it, but at least I would not have felt cheated. As it is, I feel betrayed by OSF — they sold me tickets to William Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” and gave me no Shakespeare, no comedy, only errors.