Shakespeare. What a hack, right?
He forms a few couplets; uses iambic pentameter as a parlor trick; creates a convoluted plot a la Larry David that utilizes misunderstandings, unjustified grudges and idiots to compel a grand denouement. In the end though, he’s a centuries-old rhyming dude with a panache for sex, poop, and fat jokes disguised as poetry. He surfaces the occasional giggles of grown-ups (who have a fleeting understanding of his twisted stream of reference) while boring their children. Then theatrical troupes the world over think, ‘hey, this is accessible. This is universally loved! Let’s put in a park and make old people come with their lawn chairs.’
And they do, in droves.
Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks: what a bizarre assemblage of purported “culture” and the strange casual asshole-dom that is people doing whatever they want. Shakespeare with bags of chips and inappropriate talking. Kids with bike helmet walks right in front of me. Stands in the front row next to his mother, totally oblivious. Man, little kids are rude. Someone keeps flying a drone right over the performance. Sounds like a flying insect from the Triassic era. Each time the audience as an organism turns its head upwards in derision. It’s like that new trailer for Dunkirk movie. It is also the best place to see a teenager passed out on a lawn chair, gaping with wide-open mouth, smack dab in the front row.
Does anyone know what the hell the actors are saying? At this point in the vernacular (American, 400 years after Billy’s prime), I think of Shakespeare like an impressionist painting: the individual phrases are confusing illustration, muddled in poesy iambic pentameter; but as a whole the plot creates an impressive platter. You’re like ‘what the hell is going on?’ until you realize, ‘hey, this is well put-together and book-ended. Bravo, dude.’ The plot is hackneyed, but structured. It is beautifully phrased, but bawdy. Slapstick, but topical.
Very rigid high school teachers and scholars will treat Shakespeare as the canon. He’s the dude who it all comes down to: a veritable bible of Anglo literature. Do they even realize how many fart jokes are in this play?
A man may break a word with you, sir; and words are but wind
Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.
Or the whole page long argument comparing baldness to human intelligence. Or the page long conversation comparing a woman’s fatness to a portrait of the globe. I guess the brilliance of Shakespeare is that he is canon and yet somehow when you get down to his essence, he’s like floral bro humor. He’s just a dude who likes jokes.
And maybe that point is emphasized never more than in the Comedy of Errors. Let’s give director Charles Beikert some credit for really emphasizing the slapstick in this play. Actors were moving. They moved through the sitting crowd. They put emphasis into every line. You could be a deaf-mute and still get a kick out of the silliness of this performance. The cast was magnificent at really utilizing their body to make gestures stand-out. Breakout roles in this manner were Nick Benninger, Jennifer Tober, and Tonya Lynn. They really threw their expressions in a strong way, doing extra body work to compel a laugh that could be shared by sentient adult and oblivious child alike. Brilliant slapstick that had a furtive energy. The character acting of Derrick Shane’s Aegeon and Jim Walker’s Merchant and Abbess were also very compelling. It’s tough to be on a hillside, mid-day, attempting to project to a crowd of 100+ and also trying to emulate the slow movement of an old man or woman. I very much appreciated the takes on the character; it showed practice and commitment. So hat’s off to these actors!
I guess, what am I gonna say? ‘Shakespeare: 2/5 stars. Maybe hit back up the editing room.’ It’s crazy to me how simultaneously accessible and inaccessible the Bard can be. But I guess the brilliance of celebrating this canonized hero is to break out the challenge of effacing his highbrow diction in the midst of a lowbrow plot in an arena built for children, dogs and joggers. It’s like, what if we tried to teach Calculus in the middle of a mall? How ’bout a life-size game of chess where everyone speaks in rhymes and riddles? Is the challenge of Shakespeare the brilliance of his plays? Is that why Shakespeare in the Parks is a thing?
No. It’s because he is indeed as clever and sharply-crafted as his myth makes him out to be. What writer can use lowbrow puns so quickly and vastly and in rhyme?
I never liked this play because it was too confusing to me on the page. The slapstick of mistaken identity is so hard to keep track of: the whole same name thing that makes 100 Years of Solitude 100 hours of backtracking and googling. But this production was very successful at bringing The Comedy of Errors, that original identity of a convoluted plot, to its foremost power: a silly little thing that makes children and adults laugh at the same jokes. Bravo!
The Comedy of Errors runs weekends in varying locations through September 25th. All performances are free to the public but more information can be found on their website here.