Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another Review for Arkansas Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors"

Arkansas Shakespeare Fest: "Comedy of Errors"
from the Arkansas Times
June 21, 2010
by Bernard Reed

There are a lot of things to like about Shakespeare, not least of which is the flexibility of his plays. The Arkansas Shakespeare Festival’s production of "The Comedy of Errors" has certainly taken advantage of this flexibility to come up with a loudly colorful and goofily anachronistic show.

"The Comedy of Errors" is one of Shakespeare’s first plays and has long been considered by scholars to lack academic depth — a quality that any tired English student might find very appealing. It tells the story of Antipholus of Syracuse and his slave Dromeo arriving in Ephesus, the former looking for his long lost brother; the brother turns out to be an identical twin, also named Antipholus, who is accompanied by his own servant, the identical twin of Dromeo. The presence of these two pairs of twins results in a cavalcade of humorous mishaps, replete with mistaken identities and a full serving of slapstick gags.

Which is one of the production’s strong points, at least for those who like slapstick: There’s a lot of theatrically cartoonish beating-up of Dromeo, the show’s punching bag, who flops about on stage as though he was made of rubber (as though they were made of rubber, that is). That’s another part of this show that’s executed very cleverly — rather than use separate actors for each twin, requiring greater suspension of disbelief from the audience, there’s only one actor for both Antipholuses and both Dromeos. The problem of the twins confronting each other in the final scene is craftily resolved in a gag that stays in line with the wackiness of the rest of the show.

And wacky it certainly is. The costumes are brightly colored and don’t adhere to any particular setting or period, and the cast is followed around by a pair of bouncing minstrels who act as a kind of vaudevillian chorus. One feature that might annoy some is the lack of any theme to the setting — Ephesus has been updated to a vaguely Southern small town in the early 20th century, but the characters are so full of anachronism that they seem to exist in some indefinable Shakespearean ether, conforming more to quirky caricatures than the demands of their setting. But Shakespeare is flexible, after all, and this is a play about the farcical committing of errors.

It’s an amusing bit of Shakespeare, to be sure, and if you want to expose your kids to the bard but don’t think that "Henry V," the Festival’s other option, is quite the right entry point to his oeuvre, "The Comedy of Errors" will work just fine. It shows again June 26 at 7 p.m. and July 3 at 2 p.m.

I'll give them this: in Little Rock, your review gets published in THE VERY NEXT PRINTED EDITION of the paper. Just saying...

I'm home in Richmond now, sweating in my hot box of an apartment. Applying for jobs in Arkansas, Iowa, Florida, and Missouri. Updates as they come.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Review is in for Arkansas Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors"

— The Bard would breathe easy at the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival’s Comedy of Errors - provenance is given short shrift.

No, this production is a mixed bag of 17th-century story and 19th-century American Old West set pieces; costumes that range from three-piece suit to busty form-fitting sweater to argyle sweater; a beat cop, a nun, a man in drag?

Director Andrew Hamm threw everything in the old playbook out but the lines and the jocund intent and scored big. Not only is the festival’s Comedy of Errors a salutatory show, it makes a wonderful introduction to Shakespearean theater for those in need of it.

The play itself is a case of mistaken identities, the looptyloop arc of identical twin brothers and their identical twin servants, trying to find one another after many years. The situation is urgent because the brothers’ father faces execution at nightfall.

The production brims with howling slapstick and some surprise camp, then manages to finish on a tender moment. Between, the acting is off-pitch in only a scant place or two, and Josh Rice (the servant Dromio) is uproarious. His rubbery frame and spasmodic reactions are reminiscent of Jerry Lewis.

Shakespeare may be timeless but his comedies depend so much on reaching their audience, and Comedy of Errors, for all the puerile laughs, is a challenging one for its language. Exchanges that lean on “pate” and “sconce” wordplay just don’t sink quickly into our thick ... pates and sconces. So Hamm has encouraged his players to act out many of the lines, and it’s great fun to follow along.

“It’s really an artifact of English classes that we treat Shakespeare like a book instead of a play,” he says. “Trust that we know what we’re doing, and that we’ll get the story across to you, I promise.”

The show can be seen at 7:30 p.m. today at the Reynolds Performance Center at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway ($20 general admission, $10 for students), at 2 p.m. Sunday (a “pay-what-you-can” show) or at 2 p.m. July 3.



Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Goode Olde Dayes

So apparently there's some big international sporting event going on today...

I always begin a directing process with a couple of script-inspired guiding concepts to shape the show. For Othello it was the dichotomy of Iago and his multiplicity of lies, inspiring the idea of him as an actual shape-changing demonic deceiver. For Doctor Faustus it was the show's prison-in-Hell concept, leading to Mephistophilis' childishly simple illusions and Faustus' own attachment to juvenile things. As You Like It started with the necessity to get four couples married at once with only five actors, with gender-bending and city-versus-country as the, er, touchstones (WOMP!). Last year's Midsummer was spurred by a sense of the faeries as godlike, ancient beings, far above the humans whose lives they so casually toyed with.

In the case of Comedy of Errors, the foundational ideas are "those were the good old days" and buddy comedy.

Comedy comes from a school of British literature following the mainland Renaissance's fascination with classical texts. Everything old was new, and old stories were hitting the bestseller lists again. Comedy of Errors is based on several original sources, primarily Plautus' The Menaechmi (a play that is hilarious in its own right). The idea swiftly became not an actual historical age of yore, but a fantastical one, made of a combination of:
  1. stories your grandfather used to tell about having to walk to school uphill against the wind both ways, 
  2. old movies like It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, and 
  3. Chuck Jones-directed Looney Tunes cartoons. 
We wouldn't create a realistic early-twentieth-century port town, we would create a fantasia of one that rings true emotionally without having to work factually. The combination of that idea and a realization of just how much Dromio and Antipholus are a comedy duo leading straight up to Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Reiner and Brooks, and Penn and Teller, formed the basis for the show. The rest proceeded from there.

Douglas Gilpin's beautiful set creates the corner of a town square (with a Civil War memorial statue inspired by Q-Tip Park in front of VCU's performing arts center), complete with all the mansion-style edifices the play requires to keep its Aristotelian unity of place (Comedy is the only one of Shakespeare's plays to do so, yet another acknowledgement of a "good old days" mentality in its writing). The tops of the buildings, however, are set at sightly skewed angles, establishing an environment above reality before the play even begins. My goal is that this will help take the edge off of the audience's perceptions of the violence, which is plentiful in the play; the script's most common stage direction is "Antipholus beats Dromio," and master-beats-servant just isn't so funny any more. We're shooting for slapstick and cartoony.

Here's the model:

The statue has actually moved from DR to DL, and has been replaced by a bench and a crate.

Shauna Meador took the era and idea and came forth with some of the most gorgeous costumes I have ever worked with. In many ways, working with Shauna is similar to working with Becky Cairns and Annie Hoskins, which is a fine compliment to all three ladies. The lines begin with glamorous shapes and textures from '30s cinema, with color temperature turned up high; I even joked early on that the color palate for many of the costumes was a pack of highlighters, and the expression has stuck. Dromio wears massively clashing argyles in fluorescent colors, Antipholus similar patterns but in softer colors.

Here's the duo rapping:

This picture doesn't do justice to the insane energy these two actors, Paul Saylor and Josh Rice, bring to the show.

Signing off for now to get ready for a music and vaudeville rehearsal.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre Adventures!

For the past three weeks, I've been serving as director, musical director and sound designer for the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre's production of The Comedy of Errors. Since we open in six days, it's probably about time I started writing a bit about this, eh?

It started almost a year ago when I got a phone call from Producing Artistic Director Matt Chiorini. He said they were looking to scale back the size of the festival a bit in 2010, and that his research into small-cast Shakespeare had turned up reviews of my recent shows (As You Like It with Richmond Shakespeare). I applied for the job, was told it would be a five-actor As You Like It, then possibly a small-cast Othello. Then came the sad phone call; he rang me to tell me that they had narrowed it down to two candidates, neither one of which was me. Maybe next year. The very next day, he called me back for another interview, then an offer. Apparently, he just got a better vibe about me than the others. Let that be a lesson, young theatre artists: being a NICE PERSON will get you quite far. It's the undefinable something that always comes into play but rarely gets talked about.

AST works in association with the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, a small college-centered city about 30 minutes north of Little Rock. As such, we have full access to the university's theatre facilities. Many of the department's faculty members are involved in the design phase of the show, and that has been one of the biggest eye-openers of the entire process.

I've become accustomed, both at VCU and at Richmond Shakespeare, to having very little in the way of tech and essentially no set or lighting whatsoever. So the need to communicate my ideas to a massive number of designers on a 45-minute conference call from my freezing car on my lunch break last winter was quite intimidating. Similarly, relinquishing production duties to Lizzy, my stage manager, Andi, my production manager, Matt, and the various designers and technicians has been a bizarre feeling. I know, beyond doubt, that they are competent far beyond my abilities; I just simply have no precedent in my career for seeing these tasks done without my having to do them. In a lot of ways, and intending no disrespect to the "poor theatre"-inspired companies I have mostly worked for, this feels in many ways like the first "grown up" directing gig of my career. I could get used to this.

I have to get to rehearsal now, but I'll write more in the next few days. For now, here's an image actors who have worked with me in Richmond will recognize:

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