Shakespeare in Zilker Park: ‘The Comedy of Errors’ is lovely spring fare

Tony Salinas and Madison Weinhoffer in Austin Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Shakespeare in the park can be a difficult prospect. With an audience that is constantly moving around, reclining on blankets and checking their phones, plus a broad range of technical problems that must be overcome, it’s often difficult to keep momentum going throughout several hours. Add to this the complexities of Shakespearean language, and often you have a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, Austin Shakespeare’s free production of “The Comedy of Errors” at the Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater, playing through May 28, manages to avoid most of these problems through a high-energy, fast-paced interpretation that highlights the zaniness and broad comedy of the text. Director Robert Ramirez’s placement of the show in a bustling port city works well with the spring serenity of the hillside theater, creating a wonderful atmosphere for one of Shakespeare’s silliest works.

As the title suggests, “The Comedy of Errors” is a comedic play that centers around two pairs of twins and a resulting series of mistaken identities. The text’s mishaps come to life on the expansive Zilker stage, allowing for a series of deliberately hammy performances that are perfect for outdoor theater.

Tony Salinas, as Antipholus of Syracuse, is a delightful leading man, able to mine Shakespeare’s complicated linguistics for the comedic punches that resonate with contemporary audiences. He is counterpoised against the more physical comedy of Toby Minor, as his long-lost twin brother, Antipholus of Ephesus. Accompanying both men are their servants, who also happen to be long-lost twin brothers. Dromio of Syracuse (Madison Weinhoffer) and Dromio of Ephesus (Hannah Rose Barfoot) provide the comedic core of the show, with broad, hilarious slapstick of both the physical and verbal variety.

Catherine Grady and Marc Pouhé in Austin Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Unfortunately, “The Comedy of Errors” is unable to escape from the usual problems that an outdoor production faces. The sound system can be very touchy, with actors’ microphones cutting in and out, even in the middle of important lines. Designer Patrick W. Anthony’s lights, though beautiful and evocative, are only truly visible in the second half of the show, after the sun has gone down. Anthony’s sets, on the other hand, are crucial for creating the whimsical atmosphere, painting a landscape on which the actors are free to play.

This production of “The Comedy of Errors” is not one that redefines the text or uses it to make deep statements about current events. Rather, it embraces the timeless comedic romanticism of Shakespeare’s words and uses them to create a lovely entertainment filled with wit, whimsy, and (as with all good comedies) a happy ending, of course.

“The Comedy of Errors”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through May 28
Where: Zilker Hillside Theater, 2206 William Barton Drive
Cost: Free
Information: austinshakespeare.org

 

Austin Shakespeare’s intimate “Old Times” baffles, disturbs and moves

Jill Blackwood, Nancy Eyermann and Ben Wolfe in "Old Times." Contributed by Bret Brookshire
Jill Blackwood, Nancy Eyermann and Ben Wolfe in “Old Times.” Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Supposedly, while starring in a 1984 production of the Harold Pinter play “Old Times,” Anthony Hopkins asked the playwright what the play’s ending meant. Pinter’s reply? “I don’t know. Just do it.”

This anecdote is a fairly good summation of Pinter’s writing, which is at turns provocative, elliptical, off-putting and confusing. It is also poetic, precise and very, very good, which is part of the reason why Austin Shakespeare’s production of “Old Times” (originally produced in 1971) feels so fresh and contemporary.

The other reason, of course, is the high talents of the team behind this production, beginning with its performers.

The play features three character —  married couple, Kate and Deeley, and Kate’s old friend, Anna, who has come to visit them. It very quickly becomes clear that Kate and Anna were more than just friends, and Deeley spars with Anna for his wife’s affections, while at the same time finding himself increasingly attracted to her. The tension between the three characters is emotional, psychological and dangerously erotic, a balancing act that all three performers excel at.

As Deeley, Ben Wolfe’s increasing frustrations with both Anna and his own wife provide the play with its emotional arc. His confusion, anger and fear drive the action forward in a cohesive line, even as the plot and characterizations begin to deliberately crumble into surrealist territory. Jill Blackwood’s Anna is sleek, sexy and poised, a constant straight line standing between the curved, crooked figures of both the set and the married couple.

Nancy Eyermann, as Kate, gives a standout performance, vacillating between placid mutability and steely control, even as Deeley and Anna fight for/over her. The intimacy of the playing space, which is entirely in the round, allows for her subdued style to shine.old_times_cropped-3229

Rather than trying to clarify an intentionally vague and poetic plot, director Ann Ciccolella has leaned into the mounting sense of menace that “Old Times” develops as it goes on, particularly by embracing the full-on eeriness of the second act. The set, designed by Patrick W. Anthony, is a simple living room (and later a bedroom) with bare furniture, but one that is deliberately crooked and off-center, with far too much space inside, evoking both the distance between the characters and the existential gulf that the play creeps towards.

Anthony’s lighting, alongside sound design by Lowell Bartholomee, also plays a crucial role in the production, creating both tension and mood. It is, in fact, these design elements that get the final, powerful word, even after the actors have said their last lines. The light and sound fill up some of the famous “Pinter pauses” and imbue them with a power that differentiates them from those pauses merely filled by silence.

Old Times is a forceful and emotional play, even if it is one that lends itself to multiple interpretations, all or none of which may be correct. Austin Shakespeare’s production plays up the text’s most visceral and disturbing elements, making for a powerful evening of theater that may confuse your intellect while still ringing crystal clear to your senses and emotions.

“Old Times”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through March 5

Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Cost: $18-$44

Info: 512-474-5664, thelongcenter.org