Among the offerings at this summer’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the Comedy of Errors. The show is clearly a crowd-pleaser, provoking many laughs from most of the audience. The people with whom I saw the show, who generally have pretty good taste in theater, thought it was hilarious. So statistically speaking, if you see the show before it concludes its run in mid-August, you will probably have a great time. That said, I couldn’t stand it, and thought it was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen on stage.
Comedy may be Shakespeare’s first play, and it has many of the elements that appear in his later comedies. A pair men are identical twins, separately shortly after birth. Each man has a servant, and servants are also identical twins. Each twin pair not only looks alike, they have the same name. The twins from Syracuse (modern Italy) show up in Ephesus (modern Turkey) and much confusion ensues from mistaken identity. There are some small fights, then a big one, and in the last scene, everything is straightened out, and everyone lives happily ever after.
While modern scholars credit Comedy with more social and political complexity than did some earlier scholars, and there’s plenty of witty dialogue, it’s fair to saw that Shakepeare’s comedy-writing skills improved after this early effort.
Among the virtues of the CSF’s production this season is an excellent set, which nearly rises to the level of being a character. Impressively, the same set is also used for CSF’s parallel production of Romeo & Juliet. The entire cast is hard-working and energetic; the two actors who play the servants (Dromio 1 and Dromio 2) have vivacious comic energy. All the costumes are very good, and help the audience remember who’s what.
However, the CSF’s version of Comedy of Errors appears to have made its artistic decisions based on the recommendations of Eric Cartman, the puerile 4th-grade boy from the South Park cartoon:
“OK, most people can’t understand Shakespeare, because it has too many words. So you need to crank up the visual humor. First, put in a lot of farts and fart jokes. In fact, put in a really long fart that is so powerful that everyone on stage passes out. The audience will love it.” (They did.)
“Then, do a lot of pointless stuff that has almost nothing to do with the play. After intermission, have one of the characters throw bags of goldfish crackers to the audience.”
“Every good play has lots of dick humor. So one of the characters should stick a fish doll in pants, and have it hanging down for most of the show. Also, if another character says something about sex, he should grab his thing while he says it.”
“You know that scene where the wife has an argument with the prostitute that her husband has been visiting? They should pretend that they’re sumo wrestlers. Because everyone knows that sumo wrestlers are almost the funniest thing in the world. Except for farts.”
“Speech impediments are funny too. Whenever the Duke of Ephesus speaks, he should add an extra syllable for any word ending with ‘s’. So he says ‘Ephesus’ as ‘Ephesus-es’. That will be just as hilarious in Act 5 as it is in Act 1.”
“Finally, the style for most of the play should be Three Stooges. Except these days, people actually hitting each other would upset the audience. So just use a lot of fake punches, and have somebody clack two boards together at the moment of impact.”
Early in the play, one character marvels, “This is the fairyland.” Yet the CSF’s production of Comedy works relentlessly to dispel theatrical enchantment, to constantly break through the fourth wall, and to remind the audience at every opportunity that they are watching Shakespeare-for-people-who-thought-Shakespeare-for-Dummies-was-too-hard-to-read. Compared to this Saturnalia of moronic vulgarity, Blazing Saddles seems like, well, a Shakespeare play.