Summer in Ithaca wouldn’t be complete without Ithaca Shakespeare’s classic productions. This month the company tackles the stay-at-home challenge creatively with two virtual shows: “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Comedy of Errors,” both from William Shakespeare’s early work before 1595.
The tragedy audiences may well know by heart, and the tangled comedy about two sets of twins (the Bard’s updating of Plautus) may be familiar for inspiring the Rodgers and Hart musical, “The Boys from Syracuse.” Chris Nickerson directs the tale of star-crossed lovers; Beth Harris the farce of confused identities.
While we miss the usual leafy state park setting, a handsome online ambience is provided for both productions, contributing a welcome depth. For the comedy, a simple white backdrop laced with pleasing city sketches effectively serves the chaotic action, while tinkling piano rags (from Scott Joplin and music coordinator Kevin MacLeod) provide an upbeat, mischievous air.
In contrast, the tragedy’s background is aptly black, setting the mood and isolating the darkly clad characters. A novel and exciting aspect of this show is the introduction of shadow puppets, particularly in the group scenes. The ball where Romeo and Juliet meet, the brawls where Mercutio is killed and Romeo later slays Paris—these are exquisitely rendered, from construction to choreography, by Linda Wingerter of The Stringpullers Puppet Company. Assisted by her husband, Wingerter evokes both tenderness and violence with the jointed figures, their very silhouettes rendering this sad story even more iconic. (A recent feature in the Ithaca Voice profiles and illustrates her striking work.) And throughout, Jeffrey Wahl’s original music complements the action.
Cross-gender casting occurs in both productions, most successfully in the comedy. In the tragedy, having two women play Verona’s young lovers almost works: Lisa VillaMil’s Romeo is forceful and persuasive, but pixieish Sinclair Dumont’s Juliet is too childlike, too contemporary, her lines delivered with insufficient understanding. To quote Romeo, “thou canst not speak of what thou dost not feel.”
Dave Dietrich and Emmanuella Agoumba play Lord and Lady Capulet, Richard Mertens and Karen St. Clair the opposing Montagues. Judith Andrew is the enabling nurse, Nancy Kane the conniving friar (in need of better costume). The spirited young men, all doomed to die, include A.J. Sage as the feisty Tybalt, Khalfani Louis as Juliet’s sympathetic suitor Paris, and a dynamic, scene-stealing Yannick Trapman O'Brien as the witty Mercutio. Nickerson directs all the action with a fine sense of space and movement.
The haunting shadow puppets and Shakespeare’s lyrical dialogue itself move us here, but the uneven acting less so. This disparity in levels of ability detracts in “The Comedy of Errors” as well, which on its initial night also had technical problems. Local theatres are heroically adapting to the restrictions and novelty of streaming shows, and, in its playbill, Ithaca Shakespeare most reasonably asks for our patience with this new process. Still, when over three-quarters of the actors appear out of sync vocally for two hours (at least on opening night), it’s difficult to stay engaged.
Also, in the comedy, more actors needed to stand closer to their cameras, and at least one, the officer, spoke every undistinguishable line as if seven fathoms deep. One visual device that did work well, though, was in representing the two sets of twins. In a staged show, the twins are usually played by different actors, but director Harris ingeniously has AJ Sage (Antipholus) and Talia Friedenberg (Dromio) rendering both men, lord and servant, of Syracuse and Ephesus. In certain scenes, we can more or less see all four simultaneously and can easily follow who’s who, even if the characters can’t.
Double the pleasure, double the fun—Shakespeare loved tales of separated families, especially identical twins, figuring the more confusion, the merrier. When Syracuse Antipholus and servant Dromio arrive in Ephesus, they’re constantly mistaken for the local versions of the same, resulting in a flurry of misadventures—fine treatment for the visiting lord; rejection, jail and even exorcism for the local one; and plenty of beatings for the poor servant caught in the melee.
Sage and Friedenberg carry the fast-paced comedy handily. Emmanuella Agoumba is the shrill Ephesus wife and Delaney Keith her thoughtful sister; Nancy Kane swans delightfully as a wronged courtesan. At the outset, the framing narrative is relayed by old Egeon (David Dietrich), cast ashore in Ephesus while searching for his remaining son, thus violating the edict of the Duke (Jeff Dunston); he’ll be put to death unless he comes up with a healthy ransom. At the eleventh hour all’s well, of course—not only is the old fellow reunited with his long-lost wife (Krista Maider Guidici, compelling as the Abbess), but both sons as well.
This is the first time the company has produced “The Comedy of Errors,” whose physical comedy is matched by ornate wordplay—but these long, elaborate, metaphorical witticisms are fairly hard to follow onscreen, especially with audio complications.
As these shows continue, the technical glitches are hopefully smoothed out, though acting levels aren’t as quickly addressed. Still, there’s welcome summer entertainment here—uniting up to 16 actors across the U.S. for a livestreamed show is no small feat, for which we at home are immensely grateful.
“Romeo & Juliet” livestreams via YouTube at 7 p.m. July 24 & 26; “The Comedy of Errors” at 7 p.m. July 23 & 25. Tickets (individual, household, and sliding scale) available at ithacashakespeare.org.