Shakes on the lake
The Comedy of Errors
The good news from Sand Harbor is that the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival finally has broken out of its long-standing rotation of summer comedies and is staging both a comedy and a tragedy this year. It’s a welcome development, because there’s a lot more to the Bard than laughs.
Not only is Macbeth the festival’s lead production, but also the “Scottish play” is actually drawing bigger audiences than the oft-produced Comedy of Errors—at least in the early going. A reviewer could conclude he’s died and gone to heaven.
Modern audiences don’t generally believe in a literal hell the way most people did in Shakespeare’s time, which makes Macbeth’s witches and infernal references a bit more of a challenge to interpret. Director Lynne Collins and her cast zero in on the aspects that really need to work to get a 21st-century crowd emotionally invested in an occult-tinged tragedy set in medieval times that were remote even in Shakespeare’s day. Audiences need to feel the scary ruthlessness of the central “power couple” (Macbeth and Lady M.), as well as the desperation of the Scottish people as they realize they’re being ruled by a deranged killer, and the deadly earnestness of the battle scenes as they destroy the rogue who wears the crown.
Actor Philip Charles Sneed is a treat to watch in the title role. He’s the right age, he’s physically robust, and he looks natural handling a sword (i.e., you can believe that he could cut someone in half). More importantly, Sneed utters Macbeth’s great speeches with clarity and sensitivity—and without the extensive use of physical gestures that is the trademark of Tahoe Shakespeare’s comedies. Those moves aren’t needed here.
Sneed begins with Macbeth’s early uncertainty over the witches’ prophesy that he’ll become king. Then he takes us into Macbeth’s smiling courtliness while inwardly contemplating murder. He’s unnerved when he sees blood on his hands, but he never changes course. Once Macbeth’s on the throne, Sneed shows us his growing paranoia, and finally he embodies Macbeth’s sheer exhaustion (“a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”)
As Lady Macbeth, Rebecca Dines looks terrific but gets shrill in her vocal delivery. Timothy Hyland is vivid as the porter—an earthy character whose single, funny scene was placed by Shakespeare directly in the wake of Macbeth’s first, most audacious murder.
Collins handles the occult aspects without overplaying the special effects, though she adds a flourish at the end. That touch of restraint pays dividends, because it puts greater focus on the portrait of a selfish, bloody tyrant run amok—the kind of figure modern audiences recognize and understand all too well.
On the festival’s lighter side, director Carolyn Howarth moves The Comedy of Errors from the ancient Aegean Sea to the old American West, substituting stage coaches and 10-gallon hats for the original Greek merchant vessels and togas. Howarth’s read on Shakespeare’s farce is wild, wooly and irreverent. It’s also frantic, antic and very funny—so much so that even Shakespeare purists are likely to forgive the director for the liberties she’s taken.
And Howarth is at liberty throughout. She runs the show like a blitzkrieg of nonsense, piling up vocal impressions of American icons (from Groucho Marx to John F. Kennedy), inserting slow-motion “high noon” shootouts with blazing six-guns and spoofing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. There’s even a twisted quote stolen from the festival’s companion production. (“Is this a pistol that I see before me?”)
But, for all the crazy additions, Howarth is grounded in what’s always made this play a favorite: two sets of long-separated identical twins, multiple incidents of mistaken identity, language that indicates lots of ear-twisting physical comedy, and a few loud farts.
At Howarth’s command are the two best comic actors in our region: Matt K. Miller and Gary Alan Wright. They play Comedy’s Dromio twins, meaning they look alike but don’t appear together until the end. Still, you sense their genial one-upmanship from the first scene. Alongside the Dromios are hotheaded, pistol-packing Timothy Hyland and bemused Brian Gillespie as the Antipholus twins—also good.
Other cutups include Rebecca Dines, going over-the-top as a shrieking, jealous wife in an outlandish pink Annie Oakley outfit. Watch for Justin Martindale as an effeminate, natty urban cowboy; he’s hilarious. Also, Karyn Casl as a barstool floozy. Her musical number, the “Porky Pine Rag,” is one of the production’s almost-improvised funny add-ons.