Oregon Shakespeare Festival Presents Comedies With Heart

May 1, 2014

The two comedies anchoring the 2014 season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival put the accent on zany shenanigans. The Cocoanuts, by Irving Berlin and George S. Kaufman, was created as a vehicle for the legendary Marx Brothers—vaudeville veterans with a bottomless bag of comic shticks. And the title of Shakespeare’s early The Comedy of Errors says it all: mistaken identities, compounding misunderstandings, escalating farce. Both plays rely on low-comic conventions—physical humor, breakneck pacing, boisterous dialogue that bursts as if from a fire-hose into the teacups of our ears. Yet the unique appeal of each production flows from a different source-a surprisingly tender heart.

The Cocoanuts, directed in the Bowmer by David Ivers, juggles three stock plots. The forbidden romance between the heiress Polly Potter and a mere desk clerk, Bob Jamison, is threatened by an unctuous suitor, Harvey Yates, who boasts a pedigree but no bucks. Then the theft of Mrs. Potter’s diamond necklace, planned by Yates and the quick-witted queen of opportunists, Penelope Martin, is threatened by a pair of bumbling con artists, Willie and Silent Sam. Finally, Bob’s efforts to trade rags for riches are threatened when he is framed for stealing the diamonds, but rewarded when his architectural talents are acknowledged out of the blue. Braving the crazy ride a troupe of quirky characters in luscious costumes slam doors, trade hats, and eat telephones, when they aren’t delighting us with song and clever dance.

Yet this play offers more than brilliantly calibrated chaos. Compared to last year’s Animal Crackers, The Cocoanuts owes less to the rhythms of vaudeville and features kinder, gentler characters. The central Mr. Hammer (Groucho a.k.a. Mark Bedard) is no famed hunter of wild game but the bummed owner of a “bum hotel.” His musical boast of sexual magnetism comes off as adorably impossible rather than grandiose, and his courtship of the amply proportioned Mrs. Potter is more playful than sardonic at her expense. Think little guy in a rowboat trying to board a luxury yacht. Though he purports to attend exclusively to his own his best interests, Mr. Hammer and the con artists, Willie (Chico a.k.a. John Tufts) and Silent Sam (Harpo a.k.a. Brent Hinckley), get sentimental over Bob’s courtship of Polly, and fully support it.

Hinckley adds a beatific mystery to Harpo’s trademark empty gaze and, except for the incidental reflex, refrains from gratuitous skirt-chasing. When Polly loses Bob to prison at the end of Act One, it’s Harpo who consoles her with a giant lollipop and a shoulder to lean on. As for Tufts’ Chico, despite sinister eyebrows, his sneaky looks keep turning into modest shrugs. His playing dumb reads innocence rather than vaudeville device. All three actors seem effortless in their task of conjuring a Marx brother who’s performing another role.

The Cocoanuts finally evokes a youthful world of harmless mischief, where cleverness prevails over malice. Jennie Greenberry as Polly is sweet and forthright as the girl next door, qualities corroborated by her lovely voice. Kate Mulligan’s Penelope, on the other hand, astonishes with her range of vocal villainy. K. T. Vogt, as Polly’s mother, presides as The Mother of it all, scolding and conventional , yet easy to distract and outmaneuver. David Kelly, as the incompetent detective trailing Willie and Sam, serves as the severe, unyielding father figure, who is stripped by the boys down to his ticklish vulnerability. His number “I Want my Shirt” exposes the human being beneath the badge and incidentally brings down the house.

In The Comedy of Errors, youthful high jinks also unfold under parental eyes. The Mother, in this case, is the Abbess (the serene yet down-to-earth Francine Dorn) while The Father has split into the loving Egeon, rendered ineffectual by imprisonment, and the inflexible authority figure of the Duke, who has condemned him to death. This season’s production in the Thomas Theatre, directed by Kent Gash, is the first I’ve seen to take seriously the anguish of a sundered family, the “griefs unspeakable” recounted in Egeon’s lengthy expository monologue at the start. Delivered by Jerome Preston Bates in the cadence of a funeral preacher, it claims “tragic” status for the shipwreck that parted him from his wife and one twin son.

This is a challenging platform from which to launch a comedy, but set in Harlem in the 1920’s, the ensuing action conjures the African-American experience post-Reconstruction, when former slaves migrated north to flex their freedom and creativity, discovering long-lost family members along the way. Justin Ellington’s jazzy music, Byron Easley’s explosive choreography, and Kara Harmon’s vivid costumes support the comic spirit of confusion and exasperation, while the underlying loss holds a space for emotional rebirth.

The same actor, Tobie Windham, plays Egeon’s twin sons, both named Antipholus. Likewise, the indefatigable Rodney Gardiner plays the sons’ servants, both named Dromio. This double-casting highlights the innocence of the Louisiana pair, who’ve come north to find their brothers. Wide-eyed and slower of speech—their deep southern accent turns love into a two-syllable word—these well-meaning bumpkins throw into relief the jaded cynicism of their debauched urban counterparts. The Harlem Antipholus consorts with courtesans, his scorned wife Adriana (Omoze Idehenre) is publicly furious, while his wife’s proper sister Luciana (the enigmatic Monique Robinson) surreptitiously checks her reflection in a spoon and puts some slinky moves on Antipholus from Louisiana when she has no reason to believe he isn’t her brother-in-law.

Typical of comedy, transformations at the end come fast and easy: the Duke has decided offstage to revoke Egeon’s death sentence; the Harlem Antipholus recommits to his chastened wife; Luciana leaps on the southern Antipholus. But the reunions of Egeon and the Abbess and the dumfounded brothers ride the emotional undercurrent released at the start to a resolution worthy of tears.

Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels