Bard on the Beach always pulls an obscure play out of the cannon this year opting for the early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The play runs through the summer and would be wise to catch while it’s around.
Okay. Let’s break this down.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona follows Proteus (Charlie Gallant) and Valentine (Nadeem Phillip), two young gents from (where else?) Verona to Milan where they are supposed to be expanding their minds and bettering themselves as young, affluent gentlemen.
With Bard on the Beach in full swing during a sweltering Vancouver summer, Director Scott Bellis has taken Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and given it the gears and gadgets of the Steampunk genre.
I know what you’re thinking, “Steampunk? Was that not a thing a decade ago? I mean, how can you add to the genre when Will Smith’s Wild Wild West filled the cup full?”
Well said and I did think the same going into the main stage on Vancouver’s beautiful Vanier Park looking out over English Bay. How many times have we seen a kind of kitschy genre played out once too many much to the audience’s chagrin?
Yet Scott Bellis and the Bard on the Beach cast delivered a delightfully entertaining performance using the Steampunk back drop to add colourful characters behind the scenes and flashy special effects right in the audience’s faces.
The widgets, levers and wire-rimmed glasses worked in and around Shakespearean forms of love, hate, jealousy, misdirection and slap stick found in his comedies. The stage lighting tricks and quirky use of the monstrous Nurse, did nothing to take away from the fun of the mistaken identities and the foibles the followed. It was not a nauseating ride through the planet’s core filled with distracting gooberfish and the bigger fish that eat the gooberfish. It was a laugh fest coloured with smoke and lightening thanks to the design team including Pam Johnson (Scenery), Gerald King (Lighting), Malcolm Dow (Sound).
The play begins with the aging Egeon (Scott Bellis) from Syracuse thrown before the Duke of Ephesus and sentenced to death simply for being a Syracusian. Sounds about right. Pleading for his life, Egeon tells his tragic tale of loss and how he came to be in Ephesus. Many years ago on a voyage at sea a terrible storm separated Egeon from his wife and son leaving him with his other twin son and twin servant. Yep. All believable so far. Both children were called Antipholus and the servants Dromio and when Egeon’s remaining son left for Ephesus and failed to return, he has been on a decade long search for him. The ever so generous Duke is moved by Egeon’s tale and grants a stay of execution granting him one day to come up with money for bail proving that all politicians are motivated by the promise of monetary reward (how can one not be cynical in these electoral times).
Meanwhile across town, Antipholus of Syracuse (Ben Elliott) and his servant Dromio (Luisa Jojic) have come ashore unaware that they have stumbled upon the home town of their twin brothers Antipholus of Ephesus (Jay Hindle) and Dromio (Dawn Petten). In the ensuing confusion created by mistaken identity schtick that Shakespeare does so well, the antics of the Dromios and Antipholi drives the energy and comedy of the play right to the closing curtain. Hats off to Elliott and Hindle as they are thrown this way and that and even more so to Jojic and Petten who were spectacular in making the horrors of slave ownership and abuse quite funny as they were slap sticked around the stage. Hmmm. Feels wrong.
Costume designer Mara Gottler deserves kudos for capturing the feel of Steampunk especially with the minor characters nefarious Dr. Pinch, the mysterious Abbess and the monstrous Nurse Poppy. The iron gears and twisting metal made for a darker backdrop to the play and added a mysterious element juxtaposing the comedic performances in the foreground. Gottler does well by taking the darker science fiction/fantasy look and decorating the characters with horned rimmed glasses, old aviator helmets and trench coats.
When mixed with the sights and sounds of the stage crew, Bard on the Beach delivers a production of The Comedy of Errors that is a unique and wild and fun and a show that demonstrates how this company continues to keep Shakespeare alive in Vancouver.
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Actually, it’s no surprise that any troupe is doing the play during the summer; it gets put on a lot.
It’s glaringly obvious why. Midsummer has fairies, love triangles, wacky actors, and invites a style directors like Dean Paul Gibson can push and play with. Bard on the Beach has done the play six times now. Gibson’s done it twice. This one’s got a marionette.
A certain Brawler who may or may not be me, and another who may or may not be the other c0-creator of the brawl often gripe about the fact the play gets put on way too much. However, every time either of them read or see the play, they admit that it’s a pretty fun play. Gibson’s is no exception.
The Bard on the Beach production amps up the pop music, goes all-in on a melange of styles for the costumes, and misses no opportunity to push the whimsy and fun of the play. My dad and sister, who admitted to never liking Shakespeare, and who would rather pay for a six pack than a ticket to a play, both LOVED the production. My sister couldn’t believe how funny it was.
Purists poring over heavily dogeared and highlighted copies of the play probably will complain about Gibson’s use of Top 40 songs and some of the style choices. They complain about most things. Can’t please everyone. So it goes. Back to the library with you.
One critical friend of mine thought the choices bad, and suggested the director added the music to draw a bigger audience. Maybe. Then again, Midsummer always draws an audience.
Bottom (Scott Bellis) and Puck (Kyle Rideout) steal the show. Both actors chew up the scenery when onstage, and act head-to-toe with the energy that must make all directors feel warm at night.
Bellis, as ‘lead’ in the theatre troupe rehearsing for the wedding of Duke Theseus (John Voth) and Queen Hippolyta (Adele Noronha), is a standout missing no chance to push his farcical talents. His hair, makeup and costume only add to the character.
Rideout, as the fan favourite Puck, wears that tutu and pair of Chuck Taylors like a pro. Though purists will not appreciate the selfie he takes when accidentally self-medicating with a love potion herb, the audience loved it. In a particularly clever scene as the play is coming to a close that even the ultimate purist will appreciate, Puck mimics walking a tightrope down the middle of the stage cleverly highlighting the fine line between chaos and normalcy, love and hate, reality and fantasy, theatre and the real world: brilliant.
The official program describes the plot as such:
Oberon, King of the Fairies, is upset with Queen Titania. He commands his servant Puck to produce a magical nectar that will cause love at first sight. The mischievous sprite arranges for Queen Titania to fall for Bottom, a simple weaver (now transformed into an ass) while hilariously misdirecting the affections of four runaway lovers.
Nothing is untrue in the description, but the more experience one has with the play, the more one gravitates to Bottom and Puck, and whatever they’re doing. The Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena cat-and-mouse/love potion stuff is fun, but is upstaged by Bottom and Titania (Naomi Wright), and their wierd fairy-loves-donkey, Puck orchestrated subplot. I won’t lie. Writing that sentence was fun.
Gibson also chose to stage the “Indian boy” as a marionette puppet, which was a very clever touch even if it was a little confusing to some in the audience like my dad and sister, who hadn’t read the play. The choice added to that blurred line between reality and fantasy the play is always treading.
The purist in me (yes he is there scowling and shaking his head all the time) did have a touch of pshah at the opening scene when Theseus delivers the following line as if he’s Romeo:
Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.
I tried this line on a girl once. Big mistake. Not a ton of romance there.
Bard Brawl Sonneteer and ‘Zounds! contributor Maya Pankalla told me the other day the play was her favourite.
‘It’s just so me,’ she said.
Those that know this particularly talented recently married brawler/zoundser (sorry boys) will get it right way.
For those that don’t: Midsummer is a must see for all who like the bard, fairies, whimsy, comedy, romance, and donkeys whenever it is produced. The Bard on the Beach production adds marionette aficionados to the list, and pulls the whole thing off with style.