The Comedy of Errors at The Folger Shakespeare Library

Aaron Posner, director of The Comedy of Errors and other Folger shows such as the well-received Orestes: A Tragic Romp from last season, brings another charming production to the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. The main trick of this show is to make the audience truly believe that the actors are two sets of identical twins, and Posner cleverly side-steps that by using masks in the Commedia dell'Arte tradition with much success. The set, designed by Tony Cisek, is made up almost entirely of doors, which adds slapstick to the witty dialogue of the show.

I found myself sort of against the show from the start, only because of the conceit that's being used. Posner went with a play-within-a-play, and I don't think the play needs it. I felt it took away from the actual work. The business before the play began with the video and the talk took so much away from the performance, I felt like I was holding a grudge against it before it even started. When I go to a play by Shakespeare, or anyone, really, I want to see their play, not whatever ridiculous thing the director has cooked up. Fortunately, the rest of the show was absolutely charming and very funny, so I warmed to it quickly. I'm bummed that the beginning left such a bad taste in my mouth because I truly enjoyed the rest. Without that, I would most certainly try and go see it again before it ends on March 6. 3.5 stars

The Comedy of Errors
by William Shakespeare
directed by Aaron Posner
through March 6, 2011


Comment Part 1

You wrote:

"When I go to a play by Shakespeare, or anyone, really, I want to see their play, not whatever ridiculous thing the director has cooked up."

Isn't that one of the reasons why we go to the theatre, to see the "ridiculous thing the director has cooked up?" Sure, I agree the play-within-a-play conceit of this production of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS didn't fully succeed, but I go see Shakespeare plays in general to see what new thoughts, concepts, etc, the director, and company of actors, can bring to these old texts. That includes even "ridiculous" concepts.

The second review of ERRORS on this page also has a problem with Mr. Posner's concept.

"...Mr P does Shakespeare- he's got to mix it all up and put his stamp on and make it HIS show, not Shakespeare's."

Yes. He feels the need to do this because, quite frankly, that is his job; to bring fresh, vibrant life to an otherwise colloquially antiquated script that is several hundred years removed from its first production. Shakespeare's plays almost universally require cuts for modern theatre goers' tolerance for length. Directors occasionally also incorporate transpositions to portions of the text for either conceptual purposes, or for simply trying to adapt a text to the technical requirements of one theatre's space. Hell, even Kenneth Brannagh transposed certain lines and scenes for his "total text" film version of HAMLET. Is this shifting of lines not just another version of imposing a ridiculous concept?
Comment Part 2

I find the two reviewers' attitudes toward experimentation and expression in theatre in general to be a bit turgid, arrogant, and simply outdated. The most inspiring productions of Shakespeare's plays have been the ones that threw out the proverbial "rule book" that seems to dictate how one should perform the sacred "Bard's" work. I have seen a DVD version of director Jan Klata's "H," which is more of a meditation on the play HAMLET, then the play itself, and yet, because of its site-specific concept crafted toward to its physical and historical setting, the Gdansk shipyards in Poland, it became a production of the play that transformed itself into something more than just Shakespeare's HAMLET. It became a specific people's HAMLET...all because of a director's ridiculous concept.

What these two reviews seem to be advocating are plays directed by machines, or computer programs, as if there is one standard way of performing a show, and there is an algorithm one could dream up to define perfectly, from top to bottom, how to program an actor or a director to "do Shakespeare correctly." However, to quote Jeff Goldblum's character in the 1986 film, THE FLY, "Computers are dumb. They only know what you tell them." That is why computer programs like Google Translate don't function well. They are machines; cold, lifeless, soulless machines that don't have a grasp of the nuance language.

People are not machines. They deviate from algorithmic formulas, and the form of the text, at times, to define what the text is lacking on the page; a human being's soul. To add to Jeff Goldblum's revelations from THE FLY, he later in that same scene added the words, "I must not know enough about the flesh myself. I'm gonna have to learn." We use the text of a play to learn about our flesh. We add ourselves as performers and directors to the text, along with our ideas, our impulses, our CONCEPTS, because the text itself lacks the flesh of humanity. Now, sometimes, yes, directors and actors come up with ideas that look worse than the monster at the end of the 1986 version of THE FLY, but let's throw away useless 1980s films metaphors and get back to the main point: Aaron Posner's framing device.

Did it work?

Well, yes and no.
Comment Part 3

It worked as a conceptual device for the production in that it let the director and the actors build a performance under the conceptual framing device that the company hosting the show was of some haphazard am-dram group with little-to-no formal training, or understanding of conceptual through line. There were elements of commedia del arte in the production, but it wasn't an inherently faithful commedia show. Also, there were some choices that cuts of lines, and entire plot lines, that were cut with nary an explanation as to how they were resolved. These are all mistakes an amateur dramatics company would implement.

So, what were the problems with the director's choice? I, frankly, just found the EXECUTION of the first 15 minutes of the show to be boring. I didn't think the director went far enough in stringing his concept as a total through line into the performance, weaving it into scenes for opportunities of more meta-theatricality, self-reference of the performers lacking technical prowess to pull off the show. It was, in fact, too polished for my tastes overall and lacked the reckless, unencumbered-by-humility-and-training-chutzpah of an amateur

So, yeah, overall, Posner's idea, his framing device, was not a bad one. I just felt he could have gone further in investigating how to use it, and really been even more reckless with Shakespeare's text. And what a better venue to be reckless with his text than at The Folger Shakespeare Library? It touts itself as part academic institution, part performance space. It's the perfect place to showcase a production where half-assed dimwits from an amateur company try to take on a text that holds itslef up as an example of "The Bard's" finest work.


It's THE COMEDY OF ERRORS. It's fun, but it might be more apt to refer to it as "a trifle." Mr. Posner knows this. He tried to show this. What appears, "half-assed" in the second reviewer's estimation might be the actual's all SUPPOSED to be half-assed. I, however, am offering, that it could have been even more half-assed.

In the end, it's a piece of theatre that attempted to offer something more than an audience is initially expecting when walking into a SHAKESPEARE THEATRE to see a "classic play." That deserves huge kudos, not condemnations for trying to be creative.
Hello Mark. Watch out, you're getting predictable -- I knew these comments had to be written by you before I even looked! ;-) I didn't even know you read the blog. You seem to be upset by the negativity of the reviews, but it seems pretty clear that both bloggers highly enjoyed the production, and both state that it should be seen. Near as I can tell, the only thing they didn't like was the frame story, an element that you also don't find entirely successful. And isn't that the key to a director's concept? If it is successful, it is enlightening. If it isn't, it's ridiculous. We can all have different opinions about what constitutes success, sure, but it requires a huge illogical leap to state that since two of us found one particular concept unsuccessful, we must want computers to make art. If you think the blog always comes down upon creativity and concepts, I encourage you to look at what was said about THE ORESTIA (same theatre and with the same director), which was a complete re-imagining of a classic text. (Speaking of coming down on creativity: that production was quite inventive, but I believe your response was "Ehh. It's not Song of the Goat.") Or HENRY VIII, in which the director's very successful concept involved creating a narrator character. Or how about Kate Eastwood Norris' one woman (hello concept) HAMLET, highly praised at this blog? Rudesby will readily admit to feeling a lot of trepidation over "concept Shakespeare," but she enjoyed the Caribbean concept MUCH ADO at the Folger. (I hated it, so we don't even always agree on this blog). Rudesby and I both gush over Orson Welles' CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, and all three of us are fans of Kurosawa's Shakespeare inspired films. And as far as concepts go, you can't get much more out there than Ed Hall's all male production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE set entirely in a prison. I've never seen a more all-encompassing concept, nor a more brilliant production of that play.
I was bored.

As for your question.

"And isn't that the key to a director's concept? If it is successful, it is enlightening. If it isn't, it's ridiculous."


I could add more, but I already wrote too much.

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