Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ashland Nails It

I've whined more than is seemly about the ways in which they waste their resources at the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.  About how they don't trust themselves with the Shakespearean text: they feel they have to tart it up with doohickeys.  And especially about farce: about how they're good at farce, but it's insidious--the very fact that they're good at farce means that they use it where it doesn't belong. I might have (although I don't think I actually have) complained about the way in which they use minority actors and actresses, particularly black. They've made a commendable effort to seek out and showcase good minority talent. But too often they've thrown them away on works are parts that are merely earnest and commendable, not really fun.

But in the new  Comedy of Errors, for once they get everything right.  For starters, CE really is farce, although ironically, not every director seems to grasp the point. Ashland does get it, and no pratfall, no silly little dance routine goes underappreciated.  Add one more element to the mix: the almost impossibly rich tradition of black stage comedy which white folks didn't know anything at all about until a generation ago, probably know way to little about now.  Think of Flip Wilson doing Geraldine; think of Sammy Davis Junior doing "Here Come Da Judge:" move CE from Syracuse/Ephesus to New-Oreleans/Harlem and you have an jive updating that works on almost every level.  

All of which makes CE on the whole about the most satisfying production I've seen at Ashland in several years.  As an added bonus, they have the good sense to do it in a single act, no intermission. Which makes perfect sense: it is one of only two Shakespeare plays that obeys the classic unities (the other is The Tempest).  It's also the shortest of Shakespeare plays--just ninety five minutes in this run, exactly enough to squeeze the juice out without getting mired in the rind,.

One irony: they're presenting it in the small theatre across the street--the one they often save for productions that are experimental or which (you suspect they suspect) just aren't going to sell.  Might have been a mistake.  I've seen only a couple of productions here this spring but this one surely counts as one you wouldn't want to miss.

Footnote:  We also took in the Ashland rework of the Marx Brothers' Cocoanuts in the big indoor theatre across the street.  More farce.  Polished to perfection and remember what they say: dying is easy but comedy is hard and farce is even harder.  Not the best of the Marx Brothers' movies: it is the first of the canon and I think they hadn't figured out how to do it yet. A bit on the long side: wpuldn't have been worse if twenty minutes shorter. But still, worth the ticket; keep it on the list.

Another footnote: A companion alerts me to the insight that "the Duke of Harlem" in CE is pretty clearly the Duke of (as he might be called) Ellington. Take the "A" train, baby, and enjoy.

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