Monday, October 11, 2010

The Comedy of Errors - Court Theatre (theater review by guest blogger Joe Tansino)

In the two years since I started following the Chicago theater scene, I’ve learned a few things about Sean Graney.

First, I’ve learned that Sean Graney hates walls. The mission of his theater company, the Hypocrites, is in part “to strengthen the connection between artist and audience,” i.e. break down walls. Also he loves playing four square, which is really just handball with no walls. The first play I saw Sean Graney direct was an abridged version of Edward II performed Upstairs at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. There were no reserved seats - just a couple of benches that audience members could fight over until Chris Sullivan came along and shoved them out of the way. I found it hilarious that Graney blocked actors in spaces where people would be expected to be sitting during the play. Some theatergoers who were more accustomed to traditional productions were thrown off guard, which I enjoyed because I love seeing people made to feel uncomfortable, especially if I feel uncomfortable too. I learned that theater people have a fancy term for this sort of uncomfortable staging: “promenade.” Graney likes this sort of staging a lot and has directed so many promenade-style productions that he caused Chris Jones to say, “Enough already.” And then Graney went and directed a promenade staging of Oedipus Rex! so it was pretty clear he wasn’t listening or else he just doesn’t give a shit what Chris Jones says.

Second, Sean Graney loves playing with gender roles and sexuality. It’s already been established here that his production of No Exit was a sexed-up exploration of Hell’s vagina. And in Edward II Graney revised the plot by casting the prince as a starry-eyed twink whose downfall had more to do with his advisors’ homophobia than his own unsuitability as a ruler. Most people who have opinions about these sorts of things seem to agree that the play is ripe for this interpretation even if it was not Marlowe’s specific intent to have it staged that way. Is there a more homophobic way to kill a man than by red hot poker in the butt? Yikes. Graney also loves to cast men as women and women as men (N.B.: seeing Kurt Ehrmann dressed up as a courtesan in The Comedy of Errors was worth the price of admission alone).

Third, Sean Graney loves driving purists crazy by smearing foreign matter all over their favorite plays. He did this literally in No Exit and wasted literally dozens of tubes of toothpaste in the process. He removed large chunks of the script from Edward II and Oedipus and modernized much of the language. In reviewing The Comedy of Errors, Chris Jones wondered why Graney didn’t just “write his own fucking play,” then gave it three stars anyway because he was feeling magnanimous.

Based on these things that I’ve learned about Sean Graney and his craft, I had a pretty good idea of what I would experience going into his most recent production at the Court Theater. Maybe if you’re reading this you have a pretty good idea as well. In case you do not, I should warn you that Graney’s Comedy of Errors is a purists’ nightmare.

The Comedy of Errors is about a brother Antipholus and his slave Dromio in search of their long lost twins in a dumpy, unfriendly city. Antipholus and Dromio travel from Syracuse to the hostile city of Ephesus in search of their twin brothers. In order so that the action of the play works, Antipholus’s twin brother is also named Antipholus (of Ephesus), and Dromio’s twin brother is also named Dromio (of Ephesus). Egeon, the father of the master twins also travels to Ephesus in search of his son(s) and is thrown in jail. Throughout the remainder of the play the twin brothers from Syracuse wonder mildly why everyone in Ephesus recognizes them, seemingly forgetting that they’re on a fucking quest to find their twin brothers who both share their own fucking names. Graney and his cast recognize of the absurdity of the plot, and they instill the characters with an awareness of the absurdity that makes the play far more enjoyable than if they just went along with Shakespeare’s conceit.

The Court is a proscenium theater, so the actors aren’t playing “keep the balloon afloat” as you enter. Instead you get to listen to annoying UofC undergrads prattle about their academic schedules before the show begins. The seats are reserved, so you’re trapped. But there are tell-tale signs that this is going to be a Graney bonanza. Garbage skirts the stage. Graffiti covers the set. This Ephesus is a shithole, sharing more in common with Syracuse, New York than with a city of antiquity. At the start of the play this chick dressed up like newsboy rolls out on a scooter and asks the audience, “How y’all doin’?” Gender role reversal: check. Script bastardization: check. Breaking the fourth wall: check. Graney meets expectations here, and if you’re into Graney’s style like I am, you will enjoy this play.

Another thing I know about Graney: he loves his company. Three of the six cast members here are Hypocrites company members, and all six look like they’re having a fun time running around and dressing up in crazy costumes and throwing beer cans. And actually in that aspect Graney does exceed expectations: the breakneck speed of the production, the quick costume changes, the plethora of puns, sight gags and musical interludes - it all had audience members laughing like a pack of hyenas, even the stuffy octegenarians in the front row who maybe didn’t realize what they were getting into.

After the play, an usher tried to stop me and get me to fill out a survey about the play, but I was in a hurry to get to Bed Bath and Beyond before it closed. I rushed out the door without apologizing and promised myself that I would write this review as penance. This is a good play and you should go see it before it closes.


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