Since Elizabethan times, Western theater has witnessed four centuries of family dramas—a few great, many dreadful. But still no playwright matches Shakespeare’s archetypal but unsentimental visions of that most treacherous human institution. Whether rendering it comic, tragic, or as history, he exposes the absurdities that bring families together and the inevitable rifts that tear them apart (often in the same play). Beyond all the missing lockets, identity thefts, and dynastic struggles, Shakespeare guides us to hauntingly primal scenes of familial suffering, uncovering the power battles and psychological anguish of kin desperate to find, recognize, or replace one another.
Most directors treat Comedy of Errors as a featherweight variation on this theme, with its double-trouble pairs of unsuspecting twins stirring up spouses, would-be lovers, and impatient creditors. Perhaps because the romp appears light even for a midsummer night’s scheme, Aquila Theatre sugar-blasts their new production with a candy-coated staging. In comic celebration of the quasi-exotic Ephesus setting, director Robert Richmond and costume designer Sarah Hill establish a colorful Tintin-type 1930s adventure look with fezzes and belly dancers aplenty. The seven-actor ensemble plows through a high-octane, shouty, relentlessly goofy gloss on the tale of mistaken identities, Richmond stuffing every scene with pratfalls, lazzi, and double takes.
When smoothly integrated with the language and plot, these antics become enjoyably oversized caricatures of the comedy’s growing unrealities and physical confusions—when Antipholus of Ephesus gets arrested, an oddly elaborate scuffle ensues, highlighting a questionable justice system. But more often Aquila’s production simply upstages itself, trampling the plot and throwing away lines in a frantic effort to entertain—as in an overworked bit where bookish Luciana compares bust sizes with a courtesan, distracting the audience from some needed plot information.
Richmond’s concept tries hard to please but reveals little, missing the opportunity to push the comedy more radically. (Adrian Noble’s 1983 RSC production famously exploded the sibling ribaldry through circus clowning.) The boisterous Aquila cast, led by Mark Saturno and Louis Butelli (doubling as both sets of twins), executes the jokiness with exactitude, but the shtick feels imposed and falls back on clichéd business and a lot of mugging.
The larger problem with this approach, however, is that Comedy—like many comic strips—has an important darkness at its edges. Egeon’s need for ransom money and the Duke’s tyrannical threat of execution—desperate dealings launching and driving the plot—get buried in Aquila’s fray. Richmond cartoons so much that conflict disappears from most scenes, which rarely feel suspenseful or vertiginous. By starting out so oversized, Aquila’s zaniness has nowhere to go; rather than showing how order breaks down and absurdity mounts as the twins intertwine, the production starts silly and stays silly, so the family’s realignment at the close only seems superfluous.
Classical Theatre of Harlem uses a deceptively pleasant spot to bring home Shakespeare’s most crushing tragedy of age and family. Framed by an ivy-covered back wall, their courtyard stage consists of various platforms, benches, and concrete steps, with only a throne and a few selected set pieces introduced when necessary. Though the company shares this small patch of foliage with July fireflies, it doesn’t take long before a balmy evening turns cold, stormy, and dark, as Lear’s jolly succession ceremony erupts in family discord.
The most effective scenes—as with most Lears—develop from direct confrontations between the conflicting generations, particularly in the first act’s falling out and, later, when the rebelling daughters unite to disband their father’s retinue. Angela Hughes (Regan) and April Yvette Thompson (Goneril) seize on the sisters’ rising intoxication with domestic supremacy, masking their ambitions with dutiful-daughter smiles and issuing threats and ultimatums with hugs. Paul Butler plays the title role with indignation and fortitude; more than a crownless king, Butler shows us a father caught between pride and self-pity, trapped and then destroyed by the choice. When Lear demands respect from his unrelenting daughters, scolding “Art not asham’d to look upon this beard?” Butler’s gravelly voice falters, and we understand that the aging man is also asking himself that question.
As if emphasizing the drama’s timeless qualities, director Alfred Preisser sets the action in a distant pagan era and puts the company in Africana robes and capes. The production could use a little visual variety and the verse-speaking needs specificity, but Preisser’s largely youthful cast focuses more on character than composition: Hilary Ward plays a disarmingly earnest Cordelia; J. Kyle Manzay turns bastardly Edmund weirdly impish; and Ken Schatz makes an insouciant Fool with a streetwise veneer. When Lear rails against time alone on the rainy heath, however, Preisser arranges a memorable tableau: The others remain onstage and turn their backs, as the courtyard resounds with Shakespeare’s cries of protest against filial ingratitude.