If only your reviewer wrote as rapidly as Lumina’s astoundingly accomplished young performers declaim poetry, verse (and reverse) and verbal pyrotechnics by, and in the manner of Sophocles and Shakespeare, this review would be a stream-of-consciousness critique chock-a-block with tropes, puns, literary devices and cultural double entendres. Alas, her pen could barely keep pace with ‘em all withal, leaving her at times at a loss, often out of breath, and yet — despite its equally exhausting and exhilarating two-plus-hours’ length — never with a wish for this ambitious escapade’s untimely demise.
The conceit — to combine into one production Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus — is the brainchild of Lumina Studio Theatre’s managing director David Minton, who also directed this split personality of a play (bi-play?). With a production team 32 strong and two casts, each comprising 40 actors ranging in age from 8 to 16 plus 10 special guest artists common to both, Minton deftly marries two of the unlikeliest of theatrical mates, icons of classic theatre with admitted similarities in setting but an “age difference” spanning sixteen centuries. This unusual union brings into the world, sprawling headfirst into the Round House Theatre Silver Spring, a single, madcap comedy spiced with references running from the savvy to the screwy, the Father of Our Country to The Mamas and The Papas, with “Green Acres”, Time Warp, the Beav, Peter Pan and the Tea Party thrown in to confuse matters further. Another half-dozen spins (including a smile- and groan-inducing “Gilligan’s Island” chanty accompanying Ephesus’ shipwreck tale) round out the head-spinning theme-song hit list.
Settled into our seats, we are greeted by the the mildly perplexed but ever game Professor (the pitch-perfect Ian Teixera), a slender, charcoal-suited, veddy proppa, dark-mustachioed Brit, black hair slicked back twenties-style, who requests eoh-so-politely (but not without a few humorous, and sometimes hilariously but subtly naughty asides sailing easily over the heads of the underage) that we turn off our cellphones and anything else that might disturb the proceedings.
Upstage above him, their varied inhabitants seeking, and sometimes serving to upstage their beleagured fellows onstage, are three sets of shutters ornamented with Cretan scroll-work design. This ingenious stroke of stagecraft enables both characters and intruders throughout the proceedings to offer commentary from the pithy to the silly on the action down below, sometimes directly to the actors and sometimes, in the manner of — take your pick — a Sophoclean chorus, a Shakespearean clown or “Laugh-In”, on them. Below them are three black-curtained doorways through which the dozens of players will emerge and disappear (in addition to the usual stage right and left) with sometimes eye-blink rapidity.
Enter the ten Theban Elders who, proving that age is just a number, are sober-eyed, pokerfaced tykes whose white beards and mustaches trail halfway down their rope-belted togas. The kids are no babes-in-the-woods when it comes to acting chops, though (the “babes” come later) as they rattle off paragraphs of verse with remarkable ease, the classic lines laced with piquant pop references that pop out so quickly a viewer is just digesting one before the next overtakes it.
As to Antigone (the totally awesome Copeland Smith, whose richly lacquered, bright yellow helmet flip of “hair” and Valley-girl-to-the-bone patois would pose a credible threat to Alicia Silverstone’s Cher did it not mask a calculating, Fortune 500 shrewdness), she is fated to wage psychological warfare with not one Creon, but three: the Nice (Kathleen Bender), the Shocked (Maddy Sperber-White), and the Action Hero (Sonja Plungis), who cry in unison: “This is a time-share apartment” from their three cupboard perches above the stage. Antigone’s reign is soon challenged by sister Ismene (the gum-chewing, acidic Zoe DeGrazia, reveling in the feline ferocity of her own Valley Girl princess), whose largely sympathetic Sophoclean “reasonableness” is here subsumed by a far less selfless (read: “Me first”) side of her character. Meanwhile Oedipus (the excellent Jordan Harris), upon consulting the Sphinx (Keegan Vernon Clay, in the guise of a wondrous beast with puppy-huge, shiny dark brown paws) is frustrated by the creature’s insistence that he pronounce its name correctly before it will even listen to him (“It’s Sfinx! Not Spinx”). When Oedipus succeeds, the creature is carried off in triumph, “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” accompanying its ignominious exit.
On the Errors side of this unlikely theatrical mix are even more unlikely theatrical minxes. Introduced as “the two hottest babes in Ephesus,” these highly stacked (not just their cleavage, but their foot-high wigs and only slightly lower heels) Vegas showgirl-hooker types are dressed to kill in electric shades of color accented with coruscating sequin splendor. They are, of course, guys in disguise, who camp it up this side of keep-your-kids-at-home, causing the Professor to emerge and stuffily inform us that “The high tone of this evening has gone south.”
We strongly doubt it was ever there. As Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, Sam Dembling also finds himself doubling as Bob the Door, so identified by a sign around his neck (“Because of theatre budget cuts, we couldn’t afford a door”), and carries off both roles with a sympathetic mixture of resignation and confusion. Two cheerleaders introduce a “sacred goat dance” (that would be two goat-headed actors, dancing), and Miss Piggy makes an occasional appearance, exchanging insults with other characters across the shuttered doors up above.
Then there’s a gorgeously “stylized, non-representational sword fight — because there are children in the audience” (its shining, three-foot swords for all that, still frighteningly real), the actors stepping with kabuki-like grace. At its end, “blood” spurts out of the victim’s numerous wounds as rich red ribbons of red drawn out with languorous grace by another character. (Mega kudos to choreographer Tasmin Swanson.) The kabuki ethos is also reflected in the powdery white faces of many of the characters, including the chorus.
A weakness in the play’s plot is brought up by a practical-minded character, whose doubts are swiftly dismissed by the Professor’s assistant, Amazonia (a delicate Allie Segal). Animated, eyes sparkling, she whispers in wonder: “Theater’s magic!” and tosses into the air glittering multicolored confetti, only to have the janitor (a dutiful Lucy Savage), clad in dungarees and variegated t-shirt, come by to earnestly sweep it away, mustache twitching side to side, in the manner of the little man at the end of the Bullwinkle cartoons. (In one of the evening’s most enjoyable gags, she will return throughout the play, broom in hand, whenever anything hits the ground.) Meanwhile, the citizens (formerly Elders) march with posters proclaiming their wishes to the gods, ranging from single payer health care to go, tea party.
And that’s just Act I. Act II brings us a battle of the minds (make that: egos) featuring the two playwrights, garbed as we would expect to find them and incensed at the idiocy or impudence, take your pick, of whoever crafted the show. Their common cause soon descends to common near-cursing as each asserts supremacy over his obvious lesser. “Nobody likes your plays,” observes Sophocles (Maya Davis) wearily, as if this were a simple fact that only the dimmest bulb hadn’t already grasped. “They just pretend to.” And there’s more, much more, from the visibly nervous bad-news Messenger (Marcus Gordon) who zips in and out on a skateboard, to the Simple Herdsman who enters to the theme of “Green Acres,” to the heart-melting scene when the Professor’s delicate Amazonia is carried in, and . . . no, better stop here.
Despite the complex inter-plotting, deliciously over-the-top makeup (Carl Randolph, ably abetted by a team of nine), genre-bending costumes (Wendy Eck’s heady costume cocktail, concocted with just two assistants), gender-bending casting (most of the male roles are taken by women, and vice-versa) and mind-blowing era-mixing, the audience that filled the theater seemed to appreciate and understand even the quickest, quietest and most arcane of references from start to finish. That may be in part because opening-night audiences traditionally include family and friends, many of whom may have heard the play in rehearsal or emanating from behind a bedroom door, especially in the case of child actors, which most of the cast are. (It may also be because your reviewer’s circuits short-circuited as she tried simultaneously to take it all in and take it all down, all the while vaguely aware that three new characters, four jokes and two and a half plot lines were whizzing past her as she scribbled.)
Whatever the case, this is a remarkably inventive and accomplished effort by the young company. Founded fifteen years ago in Brooklyn, New York, as “a new concept in teaching speech and drama,” Lumina Studio Theatre joined the DC area theatre community in 1997 when it moved its operations to Takoma Park, Maryland. Its founder “believed that young actors can perform brilliantly using the classics in imaginative ways; that actors and audiences can grow from barrier-free, intergenerational performances; and that theatre discipline and creativity are soul mates that belong to the entire community.” This philosophy clearly guides its current managing director, David Minton, who assumed the position in 2000 (and who directed and adapted this show).
The Comedy of Errors . . . at Colonus? is one of nine productions Lumina presents each season at the Round House Theatre’s Silver Spring location, where it established residence in 2005. Theatre enthusiasts should put this company on their calendar; tickets go quickly (Comedy was already close to being sold out at press time, with four shows remaining). Anyone who fears for the future of DC theatre in the wake of waning subsidies, budget cuts, disappearing venues and folding companies will find their hopes rekindled and spirits lifted, watching these passionately dedicated and immensely talented kids (and their teachers and mentors) tackle and tweak icons of the theatrical canon with skill, astuteness, ability and sensibility. “Got Zeus?” asks one of the characters’ t-shirts. No question. They sure do.
The Comedy of Errors … at Colonus? continues through May 23, 2010 at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring , MD.