Dedicated to presenting and enlivening the classics, Aquila's current offerings, The Comedy of Errors and The Iliad: Book One, are a blend of pizzazz and finesse. British director Robert Richmond keenly balances the company's dynamically visual and physically lively aesthetic with the integrity and spirit of the original works. He gets solid support in both productions from composer and musical director Anthony Cochrane, whose festive and haunting melodies integrate themselves into the moods of each show.
Both productions demonstrate that small-scale theater doesn't have to equal threadbare values in either design or presentation. Although each production uses only seven actors--most do double and triple duty--their versatile and disciplined natural instruments give birth to an array of distinct characters. In Shakespeare's comedy of mistaken identity, this means that one actor, David Caron, plays both Antipholuses, and another, Louis Butelli, the two Dromios. It's a laborious task, but one that yields hilarious and impressive results.
The stage is a small, open space, and only scant prop and set pieces are employed, placing focus on the text and the unflagging ensemble, who can speak Shakespeare's words and chronicle the events of the Trojan War with panache and precision. They're equally adept at the extensive physical movement--especially Butelli, who gets smacked around, banged up, and carried away by a kitchen maid in Comedy of Errors. In this vaudeville-style rendition, the actors employ everything from exaggerated facial expressions and broad gestures to all-out scuffles on the floor. (Unfortunately, in Aquila's performance space--a lounge at New York University--it isn't so easy to see floor action if you're not up front.)
Richmond's playful direction Shakespeare's comedy is as finely wrought as choreography--he even makes scene changes a lively showcase for character and comedy--although at times the never-ending posturing and gesticulating can feel like a gimmick. Clocking in at just under two hours with an intermission, Richmond's compressed adaptation show more than it tells. The first scene, in which the father of the two Antipholuses chronicles how he was separated from half his family, has been eliminated and replaced with an entirely pantomimed sequence depicting the shipwreck that broke them apart. Some purists may object to this consolidation, but it is effective. And as a company that also bears and educational mission, Aquila's sparking movement-heavy style is a particularly sound way to introduce classics to young audiences.
Shakespeare's dialogue begins just before Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus--home of his twin brother, Antipholus--with his servant Dromio, whose same-named twin brother is employed by his master's brother. Chaos ensues when one pair is constantly mistaken for the other. The Syracuse pair is differentiated from the Ephesus pair by glasses (a trait that also distinguishes the bookish Luciana from her glamorous sister, Adriana). The only point at which the double casting of the Antipholuses and the Dromios proves less than fruitful is in the climactic scene where the confusion is unraveled. Caron and Butelli end up ducking into a tent upstage and re-emerging as their other character. It's a clever solution, but the constant movement on and offstage lessens the ultimate impact.
As a whole, however, the 70-minute production doesn't fare as well. Although the translation, by Stanley Lombardo, is crisp and vibrant, it can't match Shakespeare's poetry or offer the dramatic structure of a work written directly for the stage. Even at the hands of Richmond--who imaginatively uses four large boxes to create Mount Olympus and a throne for Zeus--there's more narration than action. And at times the actors' voices are heavily weighed down with overstrained emotion.
Settings of both plays have been updated, with primarily ornamental results, rather than new interpretations. Comedy of Errors takes place in what is described as a "zany kind of cartoon 1920s Turkish world," and although the Greeks in The Iliad have become American soldiers in combat in Europe during World War II, it's not an easily transferable analogy. References to an ancient war--to Greeks and Trojans, Achilles and Agamemnon--don't seamlessly correspond to what American forces endured in Europe in the 1940s. It's like trying to grow a palm tree in the Yukon.
Caron and Butelli, the same pair who frolic through Comedy of Errors as the twins, are equally impressive as the feuding Achilles and Agamemnon. The rest of the ensemble--Alex Webb, William Kwapy, Lisa Carter, Mira Kingsley, Marci Adilman, and Judy Hu--stand out in a medley of roles in both shows.
Richmond and his resourceful set designers, David Coleman and Owen Collins, have turned a clunky performance space into, alternately, a brightly hued mystical fantasyland and a dark, foreboding purgatory. A doorway is decked out with strings of beads, and massive columns have been wrapped in vibrant purple and gold sheaths for Errors. The beads are gone for The Iliad, and the columns are wrapped with dismal green vines.
Lisa Martin Stuart's Comedy of Errors costumes, mostly a palette of soft pastels, are as festive as the carnival atmosphere that pervades the show, while Christianne Myers went in the opposite direction for The Iliad's combat fatigues. Producing artistic director Peter Meineck, the lighting designer for both productions, achieves his finest effect outlining The Iliad's shadowy figures.
Whatever effort went into planting this company, the results have been fertile. Let's hope the stage unions remain willing to endorse such adventures.