Shakespeare Machine

Dominique Serrand designs a laughing apparatus for the Guthrie

Dominique Serrand, the scowling, slump-shouldered Jeune Lunie, recently directed an Alice in Wonderland that looked like it could have been done by Bertolt Brecht. The Children's Theatre stage swarmed with bowler-topped figures in battered black suits, running around in circles. Lewis Carroll's Alice emerged from this mob in multiple incarnations: as a child, as a young woman, as a dummy, and lastly as an enormous man in the form of stocky, bald-pated Brian Baumgartner. There was great invention in the production, but sometimes precious little Carroll.

Now Serrand has been placed in charge of the Guthrie stage for the first time in a decade, and given a script by the Guthrie's house playwright, William Shakespeare (does anybody else secretly hope to see the Bard himself on hand, sipping wine and snacking on nachos after yet another opening night?) The show in question is The Comedy of Errors, and Serrand, inventive and contrary as always, has taken to the play as though it had been scripted by Rube Goldberg.

Better results than Bowflex: Egeon (Richard S. Iglewski) leads a spinning class in 'The Comedy of Errors'
Better results than Bowflex: Egeon (Richard S. Iglewski) leads a spinning class in 'The Comedy of Errors'

In the spirit of that concocter of comic contraptions, the show opens with stagehands wheeling out a massive device that consists of four bicycles ridden by four actors--in bowler hats, naturally. As the performers furiously pump their pedals, several suspended glass containers of colored liquid bubble furiously and mist pours out of a tube, rising through an attached metal bed frame. Bathed in the smoky mist atop this, Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse (played, in long, ragged beard and hair, by Richard S. Iglewski), moans out a tale of woe. He once had twin sons, who, in turn, had twin servants. One set of these twins (both, bewilderingly, named Antipholus and Dromio) became lost at sea. Come to think of it, the play could have been written by Rube Goldberg: The plot is an assortment of comical twists of confusion as the brothers and servants come to be mistaken for each other.

Serrand directs these scenes with a taste for legerdemain. He has one set of actors playing both sets of twins. Judson Pearce Morgan plays both Antipholuses, the first a fey schoolboy with thick spectacles, the second a silky cad with an ivory-tipped cane. Randy Reyes--familiar as Puck in the Guthrie's touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream--makes his Dromios both sprightly and bewildered, shouting out their exasperation with arms akimbo. Reyes's comic élan is spectacular in the scenes when both Dromios must be onstage at the exact same moment.

Serrand has filled out his cast with a rogues' gallery of local actors, who battle each other--and the collapsing, smoke-spewing stage itself--for attention. Many of these jokers are transplants from the Jeune Lune. Sisters Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Christina Baldwin Fletcher, who look enough alike to be mistaken for twins, circle the stage singing operatic accompaniment to the play, joined by Bradley Greenwald. All three were in Cosí Fan Tutte and The Magic Flute at the Jeune Lune. A comically oversized Brian Baumgartner appears, chased by Nathan Keepers in flyaway hair and a swallowtailed coat with an NFX patch on the back. These two Jeune Lune regulars chase each other across a booby-trapped stage, where doors collapse at the slightest touch, and walls fly open to accommodate projectiles--potatoes, from the looks of them.

Shakespeare's script is somewhere in the middle of all this, spinning its yarn of confused identities to the point of hysteria. And, to Serrand's credit, the story never gets lost within his ingenious direction. Still, it is sometimes tempting to wonder if his amazing machine might be better suited to ending the nation's energy shortage than generating more laughing gas.

 
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