On paper the idea of setting Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors inside the design aesthetic of Victorian steampunk may have held some intriguing possibilities. The reality though is much different.
With a collection of thirty-seven plays to choose from, it doesn’t take long before a Shakespeare festival must begin repeating itself. When you consider that Bard on the Beach is now in its 26th season, and produces multiple plays each year, tinkering with the location and time of the Bard’s plays becomes an inevitability. In an attempt to tell a familiar story anew, in recent years we’ve seen Twelfth Night set in a European spa, Hamlet taking up residence in a high-end condo, and Measure for Measure set in 1900s New Orleans. This year will also see a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost set in 1920’s Chicago.
Last seen at Vanier Park in 2009, The Comedy of Errors was no doubt ripe for director Scott Bellis to have some fun with this farce filled with mistaken identities, physical humour, and silly word play. In this production however, the decision to dress the comedy in Victorian steampunk, much like his production in 2011 for Studio 58, adds little to its story of the two sets of twins accidentally separated at birth. Indeed, at times it is more distraction than enhancement.
A sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy, steampunk is inspired by an alternative history in which steam power has maintained its mainstream usage. While its retro-futuristic feel might emphasize style, there is also a requirement to balance form and function.
Like Bellis’ 2011 version, steampunk becomes mere eye-candy and function is fleeting. Pam Johnson’s set design is rudimentarily steampunk at best, and where the intimacy of Bellis’ earlier production helped immerse us inside the design, it is all but lost within the cavernous beach side tent.
Mara Gottler’s costumes fair somewhat better, with one of the most successful coming from the smoke generated from a chimney on Doctor Pinch’s hat. But much like the rest of the show’s design it relies too heavily on the visual steampunk, rather than any real integration into the story. The one exception, a stunning nexus of form and function, is the contraption Doctor Pinch uses in an attempt to exorcise the demons from Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus.
Oddly enough, Bellis also decides to take things to a different place as Antipholus of Syracuse professes his love to Luciana. Here steampunk meets a flesh-eating plant that seems more at home in a skid row flower shop than it does in the Aegean Sea. Bellis uses another hand puppet in an earlier scene that, while surprising, was just as incongruent. One can’t help but think these might have been prime opportunities to further the steampunk world, but instead both felt as if part of a different show.
Not helping is Bellis’ decision to have characters tinkering with Johnson’s set through much of the first act. A stark example is during the scene with the twins on opposite sides of the Ephesus residence door. The scene’s power is diminished entirely as our focus is on the two actors rotating it. Wholly distracting, thankfully these tinkerers disappeared in act two, as if banished by a last-minute decision during opening night’s intermission.
Shakespeare’s broadest comedies, the farce of The Comedy of Errors can be as silly as the seemingly endless twists that are all nicely resolved by play’s end. Here though, Bellis has decided that the comedy of Shakespeare isn’t enough and overloads the show with additional silliness. At intermission, the conversation wondered to thoughts of cream pies in the face or a Three Stooges routine in the second half. Much like its steampunk container, it all became noise that simply competes against the story.
The cast of this The Comedy of Errors is a who’s who of some of Vancouver’s finest actors. Unfortunately, while they work their damnedest to deliver, they are simply lost inside this production.
The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare. Directed by Scott Bellis. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production. On stage at Vanier Park until September 26. Visit https://bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.