One of the great satisfactions of Hazel Robinson’s life must be knowing the theatre she started 39 years ago is now the longest-running Shakespeare festival in North Carolina. And yet, her satisfaction at the Montford Park Players cannot be entirely unalloyed when she beholds folks like Jason Williams taking the reverend Bard by the nose and giving him an impudent postmodernist tweak.
This month, Williams directs a double-feature at Montford, and if anything at all unites the two plays, beyond the hardworking cast itself, it is that they are both done somewhat in the style of Bollywood. That’s correct: Bollywood, the Hindi-language films India produces by the thousands, and which typically serve up an intoxicating mixture of song, dance, naked midriffs, frothy family melodrama and a degree of sentimentality that makes It’s A Wonderful Life look like hard-bitten social commentary. Naturally Williams and his enthusiastic cast do all of this tongue-in-cheek, and the soundtrack is as eclectic and anachronistic as the costumes. When one libidinous lover tries to woo his mistress by playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” from a beat-box held aloft at arms’ length .. .well, we know we’re deep in the labyrinth of postmodernist misquotation.
Even the program is a bit of a joke. Though the status of The Comedy of Errors as Shakespeare’s earliest comedy is undisputed, the recent attribution of Double Falsehood, or The Distress’t Lovers to the Bard remains contentious. And even so, nothing in the plays themselves or in the program notes seems to explain why they should be performed together. But by Heav’n, they are, and there’s an end on’t.
The Comedy of Errors is a kind of “Art of the Fugue” for mistaken-identity gags. Here we have not one but two sets of identical brothers (played by Darren Marshall and Martin Cohn, and Dan Dutterer and Hamilton Goodman respectively), and the result is every conceivable permutation of silliness. The only thing missing is cross-dressing. Layer in the abrupt transitions to a kind of hip-hop music video aesthetic — complete with crotch-grabbing choreography — and you’ve got something like a theatrical mash-up. In short, it’s not what you’d call a reverential approach to the Bard.
Though actually, it’s kind of ingenious. Williams has even managed to select and edit the Shakespearean text of these passages so that the meter and rhyme fit the hip-hop beat — for the most part, anyway. The only drawback here, apart from the obvious affront to all good taste, is that the soundtrack occasionally drowns out the actors — who can be difficult enough to hear on an outdoor stage. At other times, the effect is rather procrustean: the actors have to force their lines into the relentless rhythm of the sound-track, and thus forgo all of the pauses, the nuances, the subtle shifts in breath and pacing, that support both the meaning and the music of Shakespeare’s verse. But hey: what’s more important to you — some moldy old poetry or fun?
Williams and his collaborators apparently didn’t get quite as far with their bollywooding of Double Falsehood. The plot is based on a story that appears in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and features a nefarious nobleman, Henriquez (played with tormented relish by Patrick Hackney), who tries to steal his lesser-born best friend’s fiancée. Meanwhile, in Hackney’s interpretation, Henriquez swives his way through the rest of the women on stage as well; nor does the fact that a woman happens to be sitting in the audience make her entirely safe from his blandishments.
In any event, one of his conquests, Violante (played by Kristi DeVille in a remarkably strong Montford acting debut), will not be cast off so easily, but colludes with Henriquez’s betrayed friend Julio (played to hilarious excess by Nathan Adams) to entrap the bastard in his own snares. It works, of course, and in the end everyone gets matched up nicely. But why does Violante even still want the perfidious, dissolute and omni-sexual Henriquez? It’s one of those mysteries nice guys the world over shall continue evermore to ponder as they clip on their neckties.
As ever with Montford shows, bring a picnic, a chair or blanket, some bug spray and make an evening of it under the tumultuous skies. But remember: Albeit the show is free, a few bucks dropp’t in the donation hat in sooth doth go a longish way.
The Comedy of Errors and Double Falsehood, by William Shakespeare, presented by The Montford Park Players. Director: Jason Williams. Stage Manger: Caitlin Lane. Props Manager: Sarah Artemis Adams. Costume Designers: Jill Ehrsam and George Martinat. Choreographer: Krsit DeVille. Featuring: Nathan Adams, Mandy Bean, Scott Bean, Martin Cohn, Hannah Conway, Kristi DeVille, Dan Dutterer, Hamilton Goodman, Patrick Hackney, Emmalie Handley, Amy Johnson, Darren Marshall, David Mycoff, Jim Slautich, Jason Williams.
Performances June 3 – 26, Fridays through Sundays at 7:30pm (weather permitting), Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre, Montford Park, Asheville. Admission free, donations encouraged. Concessions for sale before the show and during intermission. More information at: http://www.montfordparkplayers.org