A comedy of (some) errors

Leo Costello, Opinion Editor

The UW Oshkosh theatre department debuted their production of William Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” to a mixed reception on Nov. 21.

“Comedy” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and certainly one of his shortest. It tells the story of two pairs of identical twins (with the same names, no less) separated at birth. The play’s humor comes mostly from slapstick, mistaken identity and wordplay.

Director Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft leaned into the silliness of “Comedy” with a colorful set and costumes which seemed inspired by ‘80s pop culture.

“It is a world where puzzle pieces and LEGO blocks form a backdrop for mayhem and confusion,” Purse-Wiedenhoeft wrote in the play’s director’s note. “This is a world of colorful contrasts and opposites — the yin and yang — that celebrate the zany play that can be compared with TV sitcoms.”

The set did, in fact, resemble a mosaic of brightly colored LEGO blocks, complete with a small balcony and rotating panels with portraits of Shakespeare donning ‘80s shades hiding on the other side.

Purse-Wiedenhoeft seemed to pull from multiple different sources for the wild and zany costumes, including ‘80s pop, hippies, Hawaiian vacation and costumes inspired by “I Dream of Jeannie.” Swords were replaced with toy lightsabers to add to the wacky tone.

The costumes used color to help differentiate between the two sets of twins throughout the course of the play, but it didn’t seem to be enough to prevent the audience from feeling a bit lost.

There’s two different ways to deliver Shakespeare’s prose: reciting the words and performing them.

When reciting the words, an actor can focus on the rhythm and poetry of the dialogue but may sacrifice the ability to give character to the words.

When performing the words, an actor can focus on what’s happening within the scene and deliver the lines appropriately but may sacrifice the possible intended rhythm of the words.

Neither tactic for delivering Shakespearean dialogue is wrong, but they don’t necessarily mesh together well, as evident in UWO’s production of “Comedy.”

Since this play is a comedy, it might have been a good idea to go with the performance angle to really lean into the absurdity of the show. With recited dialogue, the audience can almost predict how the next line is going to be said, taking the punch away from a lot of jokes.

The play started off on a fun and playful note, as a high-pitched squeaky cartoon voice invited the audience to turn off their cellphones, followed by reminder that Shakespeare wrote the play as a “silly show to brighten up the holidays.”

The show suddenly burst with music as the characters danced around and partied before going back behind the stage. It took until the end of the first act for the energy and fun to come back to the stage.

For one of Shakespeare’s shortest and funniest plays, the first act seemed rather sluggish, partially due to fairly static blocking and the lack of genuine laughter for 30 minutes or so.

After the intermission, life was given back to the play as it built to its climax. Actors began to put more energy and emotion in their performances and more dynamic movement and slapstick shenanigans brought laughter to the audience.

The standout performance of “Comedy” was Drake Hansen as Dromio of Syracuse doing most of the show’s heavy lifting.

His character certainly had the most to do physically, and he delivered with a wide range of comedic expressions and deliveries. He got the most laughs of the night by far.

Other notable performances were Matthew Beecher as Egeon, eloquently giving one of the play’s longest monologues, Autumn Christensen as Adriana, bringing a sitcom feel and Matthew Peplinski as Antipholus of Ephesus, offering a lot of physical ‘80s cool humor.

UWO’s production of “The Comedy of Errors” turned out successful in the end, but it’s hard to say who’s to blame for the lack of laughter in the first half of the show. Could it be the audience for not understanding Shakespeare’s dense dialogue, or could it be the performers for not selling the jokes well enough?

Purse-Wiedenhoeft had a clear, yet wildly unique tone as unusual, but perhaps with a bit more direction to the actors as to how to deliver Shakespeare’s dialogue and a bit more movement, the show could have been a riot.