Not so comical after all
While it is commendable that the Cameri has tackled a great work by the Bard, the theater's production is lacking in good taste and refinement.
A theater that decides to stage "The Comedy of Errors" is betting on a sure thing - at least to the extent that a "sure thing" actually exists. This Shakespeare play is proven lighthearted entertainment. It is clearly a classic, and a theater should be credited with tackling the work by the man who has set the highest standard for theatrical writing to date.
If one wants to make the effort (and many people do), it's possible to find in this work multiple layers of serious subjects that can be developed and expounded upon. These include the heart-wrenching family drama that is at the heart of the play; "illegal aliens" caught in the hostile territory of a country at war; identity problems; unequal marital relationships; and the issue of women's roles vis-a-vis men.
Yet the truth is that no theater or director stages this Shakespeare play because of its relevance or topicality. Its primary attraction is that it provides - under a classic, respectable guise - the possibility of staging an entertaining show with lots of gags; a plot which could furnish more than a few French farces; wordplay enough for four more plays and some; and most important, a chance for the theater box office to celebrate.
The current Cameri production of "The Comedy of Errors," marks the sixth time the play is being performed in Hebrew. Its first production, by Habima in 1964, effectively launched the trend of freeing Shakespeare from the bonds of academic seriousness, making it accessible to the general public and thus broadening its horizons. The translator was not someone for whom Shakespeare was a natural choice, since at the time he was neither poet nor linguistic scholar (like Avraham Shlonsky, Natan Alterman, Raphael Eliaz, Lea Goldberg and Efraim Broide who translated Shakespeare). It was Dan Almagor, who was known as a lyricist before he completed his Ph.D. in literature, and who didn't miss any opportunity to inject local satire and humor into the translation of this play - first and foremost, to reach an audience that was living in Israel's world of current events.
That Habima production, directed by Etienne Debel was, I recall, advertised at the time on the radio: I can still hear the voice of Shmulik Segal, in the role of one of the two attendants named Dromio, extolling the charms of chubby Bess, who avidly pursued him, and spinning his description of her into a string of allusions to the party politics of the time. The allusions did not appear in Almagor's published translation of the play, but every subsequent Hebrew stage version has sought a hook to local current events.
In 1975, the Cameri staged the play under the direction of Peter James. The houses of the Greek city of Ephesus were transferred to the corner of Tel Aviv's Frishman and Dizengoff streets (where the theater was located) - including a crosswalk, traffic light and street railings, draped with guys and dolls hanging around; few probably remember today how the area used to look then.
In 1988, in the Be'er Sheva Theater production of the play, under the direction of Micha Lewensohn, the setting was a Mediterranean city, lit up and cardboard-like - very similar to what Ruth Dar created for the current Cameri production. The music, composed by Shlomo Gronich, had a Greek flavor, as does the music in this production, by Shmulik Neufeld.
In Omri Nitzan's 1996 staging at the Cameri, the setting was reminiscent of war-torn Lebanon, with various rival factions. (This added special meaning to the drama of Egeon, the father who lost his twin sons and their attendants, who is sentenced to death at the start of the play and executed at its conclusion.)
Three years ago, in a Be'er Sheva production directed by Natan Datner, there was no attempt to make any clear stylistic or political association, and the play was staged as if it were part of a general "romp."
I elaborate on other Hebrew productions of "The Comedy of Errors" to demonstrate that it is possible to talk about many "serious" aspects of this ostensibly only entertaining comedy - but also because I have very little to say about the current production, directed by Moshe Kaftan.
It opens with Oded Teomi playing Egeon, the merchant from Syracuse who arrives in Ephesus, which is at war with Syracuse, in search of one of his lost twin sons. No, that's not really accurate: Teomi is a sort of moderator here - perhaps a stage manager - who has the task of helping to create and manage the play (using texts from other Shakespeare plays and his own words). He pops up on stage occasionally to explain, for example, in rhyme, that soon "the third scene of the second act" will be presented.
Judging by what is written in the program, it seems that this role evolved during the course of the rehearsals, based on input from the actor. It also extends Teomi's presence on the stage. That is okay, but it totally upends the emotional basis of this wild comedy and the eventual return to the basic family story at the end.
The play takes place in the square of a Mediterranean city, with a set painted in light Mediterranean hues that seems to be intentionally cardboard-like. There are two fixed doors (to the monastery and the courtesan's house), plus another door - to the house of Antipholus - that moves to center stage when the action is happening there.
Beyond all this, this is a mechanical comedy, directed by Kaftan with his usual skill, with all the jumping around necessitated by the plot's twists.
What is missing is some refinement and good taste. Indeed, this production tends to be very loud; every dialogue quickly turns into a shouting match. And because there are mistaken identities, and two sets of identical twins, most of the work of staging involves managing the movement - for example, creating a single scene where the right Antipholus bumps into the wrong Dromio and vice versa.
One of the twins is in the city illegally, and if his origins are revealed his life will be in danger. However, apart from his stating this information when he first appears, one does not sense that he is at risk by his behavior on stage. In this version, the difference between the two Antipholuses is primarily in their speed and energy. Dan Shapira is slower, and the feeling I got was that he was wondering what he was doing and why he was there. Yiftach Ofir, in the role of his local "legal" twin, is more energetic and anxious, and tended to nervously shout his lines out. That is a shame, because these are two talented actors who could have meshed in a Mediterranean romp, of sorts, had the director managed to create some of the requisite sweeping levity on stage.
I found the casting of the women more problematic: Tal and Michal Blankstein appear in this production, as in "The Servant of Two Masters" at the Cameri, as the two young women who are at the heart of the plot, ostensibly radiating sexuality and charm. I assume they have many good qualities as dramatic actresses in realistic settings, but both lack the style, flash and humor required in these roles. They simply deliver their lines and go through the motions. Also, the costumes (Moshe Madnik) do not do them justice.
The female highlight here is Rona-Lee Shimon, who knows how to exude effusive, charming sexuality on stage - and her costume works for her (or, rather, she makes it work). She is also blessed with great long legs, which she uses on stage in a way that leaves the audience gaping in amazement - for instance, by doing a split by standing on one leg, with the other in the air.
The male high point in this production is Yaniv Biton, in the role of one of the Dromios: Biton is the only one who truly acts as a comic, as one should in this play: He is nimble and energetic, and moves in a seemingly effortless way, as is required. Furthermore, he does not for a moment lose the clarity of the text he is delivering or diminish the emotional impact of the situations in which his character is found. Ido Mosseri, who plays his twin, gets caught up in nervous shouting, which only serves to further emphasize the contrast to Biton.
The rest of the play is colored with heavy-handed references: Nadav Assoulin in the role of the goldsmith speaks with a lisp that is meant to be funny, but his whole performance is repulsive and in bad taste; Eli Gorenstein is the Duke of Ephesus from an operetta, and performs the role obediently. Gilat Ankori sings absurd Greek babble in portraying the abbess, Emilia (in the same role in Omri Nitzan's production, Zaharira Harifai sang in Yiddish) and gets a lot of laughs when she turns her back to the audience and reveals a pair of legs in a bridal miniskirt under her habit.
What bothered me most about this production was that at a certain point it seemed like an ongoing effort to wrest a few more laughs from the audience - but the laughs, which did indeed come, were mechanical most of the time. That's a shame because at least with some of the actors and the material here, it should have been possible to get a lot more. For the most part, the objective seemed to be "how to be more entertaining" and not "what is this story about - where is its emotional focus?"
Despite these problems with the production, one must praise its translator: Dori Parnes. He is not only graced with considerable linguistic talents and skill, forged and honed when he worked alongside Nissim Aloni. His work is also filled with brilliant turns of phrase - some of which were created only for the stage and do not appear on the Internet site (www.shakespeare.co.il) where he offers some of his translations of Shakespeare. His comments in the program are tasteful and informative.
The most important and relevant thing he mentions about this play in his notes in the program is that is about people who are living illegally in an intolerant country. Parnes uses this opportunity to insert into the notes his translation of a monologue on this subject by Sir Thomas More, in an Elizabethan-era play bearing his name, one of whose authors might have been Shakespeare. However, the monologue can be found only in the program and is not part of the production (more's the pity). Its message should be etched in the mind of every Israeli viewer. Indeed, reading the text in the program seems to be reason enough for me see it on stage.
In the play, More chides his countrymen for banishing some Dutch citizens. Here is the monologue Parnes quoted from "Thomas More," in the (slightly abridged) English original:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I'll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
.... Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th' offender mourn )
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.
This, to paraphrase Hillel the Elder, is the whole of the Torah standing on one leg. The rest is commentary.
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