Steampunk is one of those things that is quite difficult to describe, but very easy to recognize. Essentially, it’s a sub-genre of science fiction that features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology. But it’s more complicated than that: it also tends to feature fantastical elements and references to the British Victorian era, and it has an aesthetic to match that period. Scott Bellis directs this version of The Comedy of Errors in a whimsical world full of turning cogs and hissing steam, and it’s a delight.
This audience favourite is Shakespeare’s shortest play, and is based on a very simple premise: twins separated early in life, both named Antipholus, end up in the same town, and they each have identical-looking servants named Dromio. As Antipholus of Syracuse (Ben Elliott) and Antipholus of Ephesus (Jay Hindle) cross paths with each other’s Dromio, plenty of communications are conveyed to the wrong recipient and these meetings full of mistaken identities lead to increasingly confusing events and silly situations.
Despite all this comedy, the story begins with the Duke of Ephesus threatening Egeon, an old merchant, with a death sentence for having broken the rule of forbidden travel between Syracuse and Ephesus. Egeon explains that he has come to Ephesus to find his wife and two sons. Egeon and his wife Emilia had each raised one of the twins separately after being separated in a terrible shipwreck, and now he is on a quest to reunite the family.
Unbeknownst to Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, they have finally found the home of their twins, and we are treated to some hilarious scenes caused by mislaid communication. One such scene involves Dromio of Ephesus (Dawn Petten) beckoning Antipholus of Syracuse to come home to have dinner with his wife. When he refuses, his brother’s wife is shocked at her husband’s behaviour and goes looking for him.
The shrill, angry “Hello!?” that emanated from Adriana (Sereana Malani) as she approached Antipholus of Syracuse, calmly eating by himself, was impeccable, and Antipholus met her with a befuddled, high pitched “Hello” to match, which of course increased her frustration and caused a roar of laughter from the audience.
Antipholus of Syracuse follows Adriana back to her house while trying to figure out how he all of a sudden has a wife he wasn’t aware of, and he ends up falling in love with her sister, Luciana (Lindsey Angell). At their house, we meet Nell, the grunting kitchen wench (Andrew McNee), and Maud (Daniel Doheny), a chambermaid who is constantly brushing everything with her feather duster. The slapstick comedy shines with these characters, and Luciana’s performance had the perfect amount of innocence and fragility.
The brilliant humour is in the dramatic irony of the entire intricately woven plot. We know there are these identical looking people with the same names causing all the confusion, but we love laughing at the mess on stage. We are just waiting for the moment when the characters figure out what we’ve known all along.
To top it off, the beautiful, intricate set full of cogs, pipes, and a clock centrepiece was the perfect backdrop, and the costumes were equally elaborate with a riveted executioner’s helmet, lace-trimmed dresses, long, dapper pleated coats for Antipholus, and goggles for Dromio.
While the show didn’t receive a standing ovation and doesn’t rank among my favourite Bard productions, it features strong performances, lots of laughs, and a killer steampunk aesthetic.
The Comedy of Errors is presented by Bard on the Beach from June 4 to September 26 at Vanier Park. For more information, visit bardonthebeach.org.