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Only at a world-class repertory theater like Ashland can you get to see live stagings of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” and the Marx Brothers’ “Cocoanuts” in a single theater weekend. It’s almost too much hilarity to handle at a go. But, watching them back-to-back brings out the family resemblance between the two farces, despite the four centuries between them.
In fact, both plays trace their lineage even farther back than that, as noted in the typically erudite Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) playbill — all the way to the medieval Italian Commedia del’Arte, which in turn descends from the Roman satirist Plautus, who cribbed some of his funniest bits from Euripides, who no doubt had antecedents now lost in the mists of prehistory.
Guess it goes to show how we humans, of any era, are hard-wired to relish the spectacle of riffraff wiseguys upending the poobahs of the world so that yeasty young lovers can mate.
That seems to be the immemorial basic formula of farce, and in “Cocoanuts” it gets tricked out in the pastel hues of 1920’s Art Deco Florida. The riffraff include a Groucho character (Mark Bedard), a Chico (John Tufts), a Harpo (Brent Hinkley) and a Zeppo (Eduardo Placer). Ranged against them on the poobah side are dowager battleaxe (K.T. Vogt), a Bonnie-and-Clyde team of fraudsters ( Robert Vincent Frank and Kate Mulligan) and a dour gumshoe (David Kelly).
Both Groucho and the Clyde half of the fraudster team aim to seduce the dowager out of her money. Zeppo simply hopes to seduce the dowager’s daughter (Jennie Greenberry) out of her pert little cocktail dress. After nearly three hours of folderol, the Brothers Marx naturally triumph in the end.
But what classy folderol! Fourteen original Irving Berlin songs, some exhumed from obscurity in the vaults of the Library of Congress, all ingeniously recast (by Music Director Gregg Coffin) for a five-member onstage ensemble. Hyper-kinetic dance routines (thanks to choreographer Jaclyn Miller), including an extravagant Act Two farrago to the tune of Bizet’s habanera. And Designer Meg Neville’s over-the-top costumes count as works of performance art in their own right.
OSF must be counting on “Cocoanuts” as this season’s money-spinning crowd-pleaser after the 2012 box office success of “Animal Crackers.” To insure its appeal, the Festival has recast the same acting trio of Bedard, Tufts and Hinkley in the core Marx Brothers roles. But this year they’ve turned the script over to a new director, David Ivers (auteur of last season’s “Taming of the Shrew”). He has injected an extra improvisational note more reminiscent of Groucho’s later TV persona.
A couple of times Ivers even sets the Brothers bounding off the stage way into the nosebleed seats to dragoon hapless spectators into some impromptu bit of cringe-worthy slapstick. Of course, the audience — largely comprised of teenage school groups — loves it.
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No such hi-jinx are needed to draw us into Director Kent Gash’s Harlem Renaissance-themed “Comedy of Errors.” With the audience ranged around three sides of OSF’s intimate black-box Thomas Theater, the zoot suit costumes (by Kara Harmon) and neon sets (by Jo Winiarski) scream right out at you. And the diminutive presence of Rodney Gardiner, in his show-stealing role as the jive-ass servant[s] Dromio, comes off larger-than-life.
But the eye-opener (or, rather, ear-opener) for me was how well Shakespeare’s language translated into the idiom of 1920’s Harlem. No attempt was made to trim the script or damp down the dialect. Yet, after the customary Shakespearean 10 minutes of verbal acclimatisation, the punning, bawdy dialogue shizzolated brighter than ever. The strung-out rhythms, iterative raps, singsong dipthongs and tripthongs — even the body language, the hand-slaps and high fives and bumps and grinds — all slotted right into the Bard’s own cadences.
It helps that Shakespeare’s fanciful Ephesian locale maps so deftly onto a single Harlem block. A Gospel Rescue Mission (Emilia’s nunnery) thrives just one door down from the local courtesan’s bordello. Between them looms Antipholus’ nouveau riche townhouse, where liveried white servants impassively hand their quarrelsome black masters crockery to hurl at one another.
Against this richly textured backdrop, even relatively minor roles take on an extra shine. Ramiz Monsef turns the fawning goldsmith Angelo into mercurial sharpy, while Mildred Ruiz-Sapp transmutes the “doting wizard” Pinch into a daunting Santeria spirit medium.
Somewhere under all this whimsy there’s still the same old formula of wiseguys trumping the powers-that-be so that love can find out a way. It’s all buried deep under a flummery of long-separated twins (not just one but two sets of them), mistaken identities, shipwrecks, culture wars and whatnot. But never mind the plot. Just enjoy the rhythms, the color and the flair.
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.