Today's prompt over at the Literary Blog Hop is "Can literature be funny? What is your favorite humorous literary book?"
One of the funniest bits of literature I know of is Shakespeare's hilarious play The Comedy of Errors. It recounts the story of two sets of identical twins accidentally separated at birth when their ship encounters a destructive storm. The twins look so alike that, as Shakespeare says, they can only be distinguished by name. The complication here is that the identical twins actually can't be told apart by their names: they have the same names. One set of twins have the name Antipholus while the other set have the name Dromio. One Antipolus and one Dromio live together in Syracuse while the other Antipolus and Dromio live together in Ephesus. At the beginning of the play, they all find themselves together in one place--not yet knowing their twins are even still alive. This is the set-up for many hysterical instances of mistaken identity. The dialogue--quite often rhyming--is quick and witty, riddled with wordplay and bad puns.
I will revisit this play at a later date to discuss themes, language use, characterization, etc.--but today I want to tell you a bit about an absolutely stellar performance my 11yo son and I saw recently at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, directed by Andy Posner.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Folger, it is a small, intimate theater with a tradition of putting on some of the most innovative and entertaining performances in the country. Folger productions often draw from the same pool of talented actors used by DC's Shakespeare Theater Company.
My son and I saw a matinee performance set up for school students (including our small homeschool group). When we were all seated, an actor--not yet in costume--came out and told us he wanted to share a few video scenes from an upcoming documentary about his English Shakespeare troupe, the Worcestershire Mask and Wig Society. It soon became apparent to most of us that the film was in fact the first of many jokes we would see in the next two hours. The mockumentary served to underline the themes of twinning and mistaken identification.
The "documentary" also allows playgoers to see how remarkably different the actors playing the twins look in real life. The actors differ in height and weight, in coloring and age. But by the magic of the stage--as well as the brilliant masks designed by Aaron Cromie and worn by all the male characters--we were utterly convinced they were identical. The actors-especially those playing the Dromios--learned to mimic each other's movements so precisely that many of us in the audience had trouble keeping them apart.
I find it fascinating that none of the female characters wear masks or disguises in this production. (Female actors playing male characters do.) In some ways, this feels like a flip from Shakespeare's time. Then, all the female characters were played by male actors in disguise. Was this modern unmasking the undirector's idea of a double negative?
The Folger performance echoed Shakespeare's fast-moving dialogue by making the physical action seem just as whirlwind. The stage, set almost to look like a colorful Edwardian circus, is filled with doorways which open and close as characters make their exits and their entrances again and again. A musician-mime sits to the side of the stage, playing not only background music but interacting with the actors and playing sound effects. This production is all about show, about masks on top of metaphorical masks--and ultimately about trying to figure out who we really are.
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For more literary laughs, check out my favorite Twitter hashtag yesterday: #SeussSpeare--a tribute to Dr. Seuss on his birthday from Shakespeare fans.