- Title: The Comedy of Errors
- Written by: William Shakespeare
- Director: Keira Loughran
- Actors: Jessica B Hill, Beryl Bain, Qasim Khan and Josue Laboucane
- Company: The Stratford Festival
- Venue: The Studio Theatre
- City: Stratford, Ont.
- Year: Runs to October 20
Now, here’s a tragic error.
Keira Loughran’s new production of The Comedy of Errors at the Stratford Festival bills itself as an homage to “the history, insights and accomplishments of transgender and gender-fluid communities” – but the world the director actually presents on stage could easily be misread by audiences with other political agendas.
Shakespeare’s most madcap comedy is a caper inspired by Plautus that makes a virtue out of implausibility. Its backstory, explained in the first scene, is that many years earlier a man named Egeon and his wife had twins, both named Antipholus, and bought another sets of twins, both named Dromio, to raise as servants for their sons.
But a shipwreck soon separated the family – and one Antipholus and Dromio grew up in Syracuse with Egeon, while the other Antipholus and Dromio grew up in Ephesus.
As the play begins, Egeon (a very sympathetic Gordon Patrick White) sets foot in Ephesus not knowing his long-lost son lives there – and is immediately arrested and sentenced to death by the Duke (a beguiling Juan Chioran), because Ephesus and Syracuse are in conflict and that is the law.
Shortly thereafter, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse also arrive in Ephesus – and, in Loughran’s production, the two are played by the fine young actors Jessica B. Hill and Beryl Bain.
The idea, as articulated in program notes and seemingly inspired by other Shakespearean comedies such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night, is that this Antipholus and Dromio are in fact two women who have disguised themselves as their long-lost male twins to search for them.
Mistaken identity is the theme of the evening as Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse immediately begin to be confused with – and confuse each other with – Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, who are played by an energetic Qasim Khan and a clownish Josue Laboucane. (In Joanna Yu’s enjoyably 1980s/Victorian hybrid design, the Antipholii both dress like the late androgynous rock star Prince, while the Dromios look like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.)
Adriana (Alexandra Lainfiesta), wife of Antipholus of E, is baffled by why her husband is now behaving as if she is a stranger, while Adriana’s sister Luciana (a very funny Amelia Sargisson) is shocked and then titillated by her brother-in-law suddenly coming on to her.
Each Dromio is subject to beatings for not following instructions given to the other Dromio – and, when Antipholus of S takes a gold chain meant for Antipholus of E, the latter is thrown in jail for refusing to pay for jewellery he never received.
All this, alas, quickly become quite tedious – an hour and a half of not sufficiently varied variations on the exact same joke. It is as if, in the shortest of his comedies, Shakespeare was setting out to disprove what he wrote elsewhere – that brevity is the soul of wit.
While the surface of Loughan’s production has neat neon lighting and a sexy synthesized soundtrack, her overall concept doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
According to the program, the director has reconceptualized Ephesus as a place of inclusion and acceptance. Certain citizens are styled to appear to be transgender and others dress in gender-fluid ways – so that a man might easily be mistaken for his female twin and vice-versa.
But the idea that this city-state is an accepting community is belied by the opening scene in which Egeon, played by White in a Victorian suit complete with top hat, is sentenced to death – due to his identity as a Syracusan – by the Duke, played by Chioran in a long skirt in heels.
On a purely visual level, we seem to be to be dealing with a transgender tyrant sending the only male-identifying character wearing stereotypical male clothing in the production to death row. We could very well be in a dystopia as imagined by Jordan Peterson.
Other contradictory evidence follows – such as clear distinctions between the classes and constant threats of violence between husbands and wives, and masters and servants. When the local Doctor Pinch (a scene-stealing Rod Beattie) is brought in to deal with Antipholus of E’s identity crisis, he is prescribed a therapy of being “bound and laid in some dark room.”
A deeper issue is that Loughran hasn’t figured out how to clearly represent transgender characters or gender fluid ones on a theatrical stage in a play that, of course, does not use these modern words.
Grappling with these ideas and identities in the way she intends requires directorial intervention beyond costuming. How, for instance, is a spectator really to tell whether a male-identifying company member like Chioran is playing the Duke as a man who likes to dress up in women’s clothing, as a transgender woman or, given the long history of gender-bending casting in Shakespeare, simply as a woman?
The Comedy of Errors requires the audience to make assumptions about characters – and actors, too – in order to make meaning out of what they see. But my understanding is that a lot of what those who identify as transgender or gender-fluid are asking for is the opposite: for others to not to make assumptions with their eyes. Loughan’s production doesn’t sync up with its ideology – and, in fact, threatens to sink it.