Tom Hendry, the co-founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre once said,“small theatres create and large theatres re-create.” Pure theatre research is conducted on the fringe by individual artists, or at the opposite extreme, by the National Theatre of Great Britain (witness “War Horse”). So it is of some note when the artistic directors of two established classical theatres, Paul Hopkins of Repercussion Theatre in Montreal (mandate is Shakespeare) and Laurie Steven of Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa (focus mask and movement), come together to explore combining the performance style of mask and Commedia dell Arte with Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” just to see if there’s a fit.
These two directors chose five scenes which were animated by veteran performers Nicolas Van Burek, Mark Huisman, Scott McCullough, Pierre Brault, and U of A, Master student Xavier Lord-Giroux.
The work began with a table full of gorgeous masks of different styles chosen from former Odyssey productions. Laurie cast a mask to each character and the actors were allowed time to examine and explore the emotional range of the mask in the mirrored studio at the University of Ottawa.
A good mask, and Odyssey’s masks are superb, will allow different characters, attitudes and emotions to emerge depending on the physicality the actor brings to it. In fact, one of the immediate observations is the mask forces the actor ‘into the body’. Through this process, suddenly arms, legs, angles and speed become important. Like a puppet that must always be kept moving to keep it alive, so too a mask must be animated, in very specific ways, for it to breathe.
Laurie coached the actors to discover the ways the mask could convey shock, anger, love or sadness by the poke of a nose or the jut of a chin. The actors were receiving a huge amount of feedback in a short period of time but managed it beautifully.
In the afternoon, we went to the table and Paul explained his approach to Shakespearean text, which is initially a firm focus on the verse – the iambic pentameter. Using text from the first folio, Paul paid particular attention to punctuation, the end of the verse line, words that are capitalized or extended and, of course, the beating heart of the meter. Just as mask work has a very technical element, so too, in his practice, the actor must internalize the rhythm of the verse so that it supports rather than dominate the way the language is spoken.
I was particularly interested in his attention to the lines that did not scan perfectly into five iambs. Sometimes words were exten-ded and sometimes contracted and sometimes a missing beat would invite a pause adding an emotional colour that might have been overlooked without this careful parsing. We watched Paul work through Egeus’s long opening speech and it was a pleasure to see how the verse supported the emotion.
For the next two days, there was blocking and rehearsing where the hard working actors were able to give a performance of their scenes to a small audience largely off book. Bravo.
“Comedy of Errors” appears, from this experience, to be a good choice for masked performers. Shakespeare based the play on a comedy by Plautus. We know mask was used in the Roman theatre. Like Commedia, the play is in real time following the Aristotelian Unities, is set outside, and has many of the stock Commedia characters; for example, Dromio is an obvious Harlequino. The comedy of mistaken identity, which Shakespeare ramps from one pair of twins to two, creates many opportunities for lazzis (comic games), which the actors exploited with relish.
It was a rich, creative three days which led to only one question: “Why don’t we do this more often?!”
David S. Craig
Playwright in Residence
Odyssey Theatre 2013-14