Dramatic style sets apart two new Utah stage shows

First Published      Last Updated Jul 07 2015 08:11 pm

Theater » Small companies take ambitious approaches to two very different plays.

Two unusual theater offerings mark the beginning of the summer stage season.

Opening this week is Pinnacle Acting Company's commedia dell'arte production of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors," which will play at Westminster College's Jewett Center for the Performing Arts. The Italian form of comedy, which dates to the 16th century, emphasizes physical comedy and features masked stock characters.

Also opening is Hive Theatre Company's regional premiere of British playwright Mike Bartlett's "Cock," a less-well-known play despite the in-your-face cred of its title. In the script, the playwright specifies a minimalist production. "No sets, no costumes, no props, no pantomime, which is the hard one," says director Lane Richins. "And so the entire focus is the drama of the scene."

'The Comedy of Errors' • This production of Shakespeare's madcap, farcical comedy about two sets of identical twin brothers grew out of a mask workshop that Pinnacle co-founders Jared Larkin and Melanie Nelson took from Javen Tanner, artistic director of The Sting and Honey Company.

The trio was seeking a chance to work together, and using masks offered a fresh take on the casting challenges of the "Comedy of Errors" story, says Tanner, who is directing the production and supplied the production's hand-made leather masks from his collection.

The comedy is embedded with many characteristics of the commedia style, which draws upon stock characters, including the pairing of a clown with a straight man, a comedic style audiences recognize from Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, as well as "Friends' " Chandler and Joey.

In Pinnacle's "Comedy," all the characters wear masks except the four lovers, which provides an interesting technical acting challenge. The nonmasked characters have had to learn how to share scenes with masked counterparts, which requires both sets of actors to be completely committed, Tanner says.

It's an additional complication to add mask work to a Shakespeare play, where the beauty and complicated, archaic poetry of the language can already be an extra layer for the audience to comprehend. "If the mask work is tuned enough, they disappear," Tanner says. "The masks will be new for a lot of people, but the hope is that they won't get in the way, that all they'll see is the characters."

The actors have had to learn how to rely more on physical movements to express their emotions. By observing her masked character in the mirror, Melanie Nelson has seen how to modulate her acting. "You can be doing all of the acting with your face you want, but it won't show," says Nelson, who plays Dromio of Syracuse. "The voice becomes very important."

The show will be performed in the black-box theater at Westminster, and that intimate space will make audiences feel as if they are part of the crazy action, Nelson says.

'Cock' • Barlett's 2009 play explores relationships, sexuality and identify, as it tells the story of a gay man, John, who, during a time-out with his partner, has an affair with a woman. "You don't see a whole lot of stories about the fluidity of sexuality from a male point of view," he says. "I was drawn to that part of the story and the question of how to keep everyone engaged — actors and audience included — in this stripped-down form of theater."

While there's a dinner scene in the play, you won't see characters sitting at a table or pretending to eat food. Instead, you'll hear people talking about the dinner. That also goes for sexual scenes, which are physically acted but not simulations. "Everything that happens is through talking and interacting," Richins says.

The director is interested in the playwright's challenge in creating an engaging piece of drama without using most of the concepts of storytelling used onstage. While the story is ostensibly about what's best for the main character, instead all the people around him seem to be more interested in what's best for them. And that's what makes the play so relatable, Richins says.





‘The Comedy of Errors’

Cast » Amanda Hayter, April Fossen, Danny Egan, David Fishman, Hannah Minshew, Holly Fowers, Jared Larkin, Melanie Nelson, Michael Calacino, Mitsi Kofford, Roger Dunbar and Tamari Dunbar, directed by Jared Larkin

When » Thursday through Saturday and June 19-20 and 26-27, 7:30 p.m.; matinee at 2 p.m. June 27

Where » Dumke Student Theatre at Westminster College; 1250 E. 1700 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets » $18 ($15 students/seniors and matinee), available at the door; preview night tickets 50 percent off; at pinnacleactingcompany.org or at the door


Cast » William Richardson, Derek Gregerson, Allison Dayne and Jeffrey L. Owen, directed by Lane Richins

When » June 19-20, 8 p.m.; June 26-27, 8 p.m.

Where » Sugar Space Sugar House, 616 E. Wilmington Ave. (2190 South), Salt Lake City

Tickets » $15 at the door