Propeller Heads, part 2

As has been famously observed, comedy is much harder than dying. I’ll admit, it’s never my first choice. All comedy, according to the great Walter Kerr, is terribly contrived; after all, happy endings occur so rarely in life, and it takes a great deal of machinery to have everyone smiling (and often heading to marriage, hardly a sure bet in guaranteeing bliss) at the end of a two-hour show.

Propeller‘s Comedy of Errors is no less innovative than its Richard III, and of course, has the same crew of geniuses putting it all together (director Edward Hall, designer Michael Pavelka, lighting designer Ben Ormerod, with additional music provided by Jon Trenchard and script adaptation provided by Hall and Roger Warren). Of course, it can’t hope to have the same gut-tearing impact; Errors has confusion at its center, not a brilliant, charismatic villain. A great Errors production, like this one, grabs you by both hands and runs you full-tilt through a fun house that isn’t completely fun; you occasionally crash into a wall and see stars. It’s the ultimate vicarious drunken party, risk of hangover included.

The Tijuana setting, complete with an ever-present, ever smiling and nodding mariachi band, is perfection. Everything on display is tacky, cheap, and clashing; even Luciana, the most vice-free character in the play (pictured above), wears the gaudiest good-girl attire on the planet, looking like a birthday cake gone haywire. In fact, as inspired as the male characters’ clothing is, the females are all whack masterpieces, from the Courtesan’s bunny tail on a black leather miniskirt to Adriana’s Wilma Flintstone chic to the Abbess’s miniskirted habit crowning purple fishnets and bondage boots.

What Propeller understands, intrinsically, is how important the entire design of the show is. For the second night in a row, my 14-year-old met me at intermission and said, “I have no idea what’s going on.” It’s something I realized acutely watching these plays with him; this generation cannot hope to watch Shakespeare and comprehend every word, every sentence. I certainly don’t. And in fact, in comedy it becomes glaringly apparent that a lot of Shakespeare’s lines, clearly howlers in their time, simply don’t translate. Dromio E’s line, “And she will break my pate across; between the two of you, I shall have a holy head,” is pretty clever when you have it explained to you. But nobody’s going to do that here, there’s no time.

Meaning, then, becomes all about precision of position, voice inflection, pauses, character walks and gestures, eyes, sound effects. The actors use their entire bodies to talk, and given the constant state of trying to get the story straight that drives the play, there are dozens of opportunities for the actors to attempt, desperately, to be understood, or to stubbornly insist that the speaker is insane. None of them waste a moment or a movement. One scene stuck Dromio E. in between the two sisters and involved such intense choreography that the audience burst into applause. The actor did a quick curtsey in acknowledgment, then kept on going.

Perhaps most brilliant of all is Propeller’s use of music. Clearly, it’s a company requirement that everyone play an instrument and play it well. Singing voices are beautiful, and after the transcendent requiem of Richard III, the fellas busted into a half a dozen different genres, including a Grapelli-esque “Autumn Leaves” prior to the curtain going up, a gospel number for Dr. Pinch, played as an oily TV faith healer, and a dynamite, all-male mariachi version of “Material Girl” in the lobby during intermission.

In the end, it’s almost too much to try to process two Propeller shows in quick succession – but by damn, I’m trying. This company, every single member, is an artistic treasure, and I hope and pray that they continue forever. If you have the means, go to Boston and see both shows. And if not this year, follow them slavishly and figure out how, at some point in your life, you can see a performance.

This is art. This is heaven on earth. Drink it in if you possibly can.

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