Crouching Guthrie, Hidden Shakespeare

Amy Danielson

The last few Guthrie productions have fallen short of their potential, so a dramatic recovery for their current production, The Comedy of Errors, could not have been anticipated. However, with Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Dominique Serrand in the artistic chair, something as visually astonishing and physically-oriented as Alice in Wonderland at the Children’s Theater should have been expected.

In this play about confused identity and nagging befuddled emotions, two sets of twins cause a series of hilarious blunders. One twin set (both named Antipholus and played by Judson Pearce Morgan) and another set (both named Dromio and played by Randy Reyes) lose one brother each while at sea during their infancy. Years later, each Antipholus acquires a Dromio for a servant. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse travel to Ephesus in search of their lost brothers, oblivious that they have stumbled upon their brothers’ home town.

With this absurd premise, Serrand creates an animated production without disrupting Shakespeare’s text. But Serrand is not a purist when it comes to staging this production. Here, he morphs Comedy of Errors into a circus-like extravaganza. Characters become inspiringly playful, full of silliness. Reyes, as the childlike, zealous Dromio, energetically implements farcical moments. In one such scene he lays on top of a wall painted with a beach scene that separates the play’s unadorned platform set from a sheer curtain backdrop. Antipholus lies atop a beach blanket on the stage, sipping a cocktail beneath a rainbow-colored umbrella. While mounted on the edge of the wall, Dromio strategically dangles a hose down to Antipholus’ glass, slyly sucking up its contents. Later, Dromio cowers like a petrified puppy when recalling the horrors of an enormous woman. His outstretched arms describe her vastness, wide eyes reveal tremendous fear and mouth hangs in a ghastly grimace to punctuate his dread. With these precise gesticulations, he perfects the moment by accentuating each word: “She’s spherical, like a globe! I could find out countries in her!”

Costume designer Fabio Toblini furthers the playful aesthetic by patterning outrageous costumes tailored to the characters’ complex personalities. Brian Baumgartner as the goofy Angelo spends much of his time on stage in a plush suit that resembles an overstuffed living room chair more than an article of clothing. Likewise, Antipholus’ wife Adriana (Michelle O’Neill) first appears in the play wearing an understated dress; however, as her jealous nature unfolds, she begins to dominate the stage in an enormous green skirt, literally knocking her husband to the floor with it.

Beyond directing, Serrand also designed the minimal set, which includes a trench that surrounds the stage and accommodates several musicians and singers. They disrupt the performance on stage and provide comic interludes, while commenting on the action and offering possible solutions to the errors as they unfold. They enhance the droll atmosphere on stage by singing medleys from Shakespearean standards (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/To be or not to be, that is the question/Out damn spot, out I say!”), Italian opera, yodels, and syrupy doo-wop.

Serrand also creates parallels to the harebrained script with his error-ridden set design. An elevator in the center of the platform serves to change the set, but also to incorporate unpredictable obstacles. Luciana (Laura Esping), donning a wild mop of curly black hair and Converse All-stars, becomes the untamed love interest of one Antipholus. She falls into the space created by the malfunctioning elevator and ascends with her dress on up-side down. While engaging in a romantic moment with Antipholus, he acts oblivious to the fact that her wispy skirt now obstructs her face.

In the end, Serrand creates an illustrious spectacle: the contents of the Guthrie’s costume shop hang from the backstage ceiling for all to see as the curtains part. With all of the show’s appurtenances, Serrand invents a lavish world of which comedy seems an effortless outcome. Without the absurd costumes, actors hanging from light fixtures and whimsical set imagery, we would only be left with one thing: Shakespeare.


The Comedy of Errors plays through Nov. 3 at the Guthrie Theater, (612) 377-2224.