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Coincidently—The Comedy of Terrors

Alex Keiper (left) as Jo Smith and Michael Doherty as Beverley Jones in The Comedy of Terrors. (Photo by Karl Hugh.)

Alex Keiper (left) as Jo Smith and Michael Doherty as Beverley Jones in The Comedy of Terrors. (Photo by Karl Hugh.)

By David G. Anderson

The Utah Shakespeare Festival has a long history of cultivating and nurturing its patrons’ love affair with farce. Exhibit’s A, B and C being *Noises Off!, The Foreigner,andCharley’s Aunt,*each being produced twice at the Festival, as well as exhibits D and beyond: Boeing Boeing, Blithe Spirit, A Flea in Her Ear, The Servant of Two Masters, etc. Further enabling this amusing love affair, the Festival’s 2021 season is treating us to yet another, The Comedy of Terrors.

Farce, Old French for “stuffing,” is a play that features a most improbable plot and the resulting evolution of very humorously-exaggerated situations. Common fare in these dramas include multiple occurrences of mistaken identity, stereotypical characters in disguise, plot twists aplenty, fast-paced perfectly-timed entrances and exits, and numerous coincidences. Known for his amplified skepticism, NCIS Special Agent LeRoy Jethro Gibbs might have difficulty with its overabundance of coincidence.

Aristophanes, the designated father of farce would delight in John Goodrum’s creation. There would probably be a nod and wink for Goodrum from British born Michael Frayn (Noises Off), the most celebrated faceur in modern times. As a fellow Brit, Goodrum is more recognized for his gothic horror plays/parodies such as Masque of Red Death(Edgar Allen Poe), Captain Murderer(Charles Dickens), and The Ripper Files.

If you are wondering if The Comedy of Terrorsis a playoff and/or parody of Shakespeare’s *The Comedy of Errors,*also coincidently (there’s that word again) playing at this year’s Utah Shakespeare Festival, it is, and it isn’t. There are two sets of identical twins, but in true one-upmanship form, there is an identical third younger brother to one set of twins. Another similarity is, instead of a shipwreck, there is a plane crash on an idyllic desert island in the Pacific. Otherwise, the plots differ—well—except for the mistaken identity, riotous mayhem, and unequivocal absurdity. But then there is that impending horror thing.

The Comedy of Terrors takes place in the present, and the setting is the Randall L. Jones Theatre in Cedar City, Utah, which when you think about it, is rather convenient . . . or coincidental? The playbill advises us that there are two actors credited with playing five parts. The farrago of characters includes an actress, a social worker, a devil worshipper, an ex-prostitute, and a thespian-wannabe cop. Could there be a more motley cast?

The play opens with Jo Smith and Beverley Jones, Beverley is a man—the name is his mother’s fault: “She was desperate for a girl” (p. 4; all quotes are from: The Comedy of Terrors, Goodrum, Samuel French, Ltd). Wait until you hear the names of his twin and younger brother. Jo, an actress, is responding to an audition call, ostensibly from theatre director Vyvian Jones (also male). Coincidently, it is a farce pertinently titled, Keep Your Hands to Yourself.

To short shrift *The Comedy of Terrors,*which flourishes with complications, is challenging at best. But the complications follow speedily. Jo soon determines that her “audition” is not with Vyvian, but his twin brother Beverley. Why the subterfuge? Beverley, a social worker, wants to hire Jo to convince his twin Vyvian that she hasn’t had an affair with him, so as not to tell his fiancée, Cheryl, who is returning months after being plane-wrecked on a deserted island. And of course, they haven’t, they met ten minutes ago. So, why hire Jo? Because Beverley has slept with Fiona, Jo’s identical, but ten-year-estranged, twin sister. Confused yet? Secret relationships form a perfect keystone, arching the oft-used scheme of sexual escapades, and identical twins in farces. Just ask Shakespeare about the usefulness of twins as a plot device! 

However, there is one afront to our moral senses, Fiona left home at age fifteen and ended up as a lady of the evening, but after meeting Beverley, has inextricably found her metanoia. Part of Beverley’s employment is managing a hostel for ex-prostitutes who are trying to escape not only pimps but their past lives. This tryst, about which he is inducing Jo to lie, is with an occupant of said hostel and thus his concern. “Aye there’s the rub.” The discomfiture runs way deeper than purely concealing infidelity from his fiancée. Conversely, both Vyvian and Jo’s theatrical occupations lend themselves perfectly to the charade.

No dramaturgical experience is required to divine that within minutes both Vyvian, sporting elan and a red handkerchief, and Fiona turn up. And coincidently, so does the mistaken identity and the hysterical verbal exchanges! Vyvian is there for a concocted staff meeting, and Fiona to declare her eternal and undying love for Beverley. 

Unbuttoning the frantic running amuck with the extensive door slamming, characteristic of farce, these characters exit the stage for intervals to allow another to appear. Stage directions call for the ingenious use of directional sound and voice overs simulating where another character might be within the theatre.

Not coincidentally, Vyvian effortlessly unspools their conspiracy and launches his own intransigent counter scheme. He is a long-time member of the local chapter of the Sons of Satan Society, and his darker side makes an appearance. After enlightening Jo that she will become his first human sacrifice, he kills Beverley, “I know a dead body when I see one! I stuck that knife in him up to the hilt,” (p.41), clearly evidenced by Beverley’s legs protruding beneath the theater curtain. Very Cain and Able like!—Not so fast dear patrons—quoting a line from The Princess Bride,“He’s only mostly dead.” Apparently, a packet of condoms in his pocket did provide protection! With strange, crude noises emanating from a theatrical trunk on stage, Vyvian chortles, “No fear, That’s his spirit alright! I haven’t been a member of the local District Sons of Satan Society for fifteen years without getting to know a bit ‘bout it! Quick! Sit on the skip to stop it coming out” (p. 41).

Enter, the third Jones brother, Janet, donning a trench coat and Cockney accent. “Our mother gave up all pretenses by the time I came along, (p. 48). Janet is a full-time police officer, “copper” (p.47) and, coincidently, a part-time thespian. “I am indeed a treader of the boards. . . . I’m a paid-up life member of the local Amateur Shakespeare Players” (p. 47). 

Jo: “Do the three of you often get together in the same place?”

Janet: (with a wry look) Not if we can ‘elp it, no” (p. 48). 

No familial propinquity here. Ah ha! You are surmising the police, in heroic salvific fashion, will rescue Jo from the sacrificial alter and thwart another attempted fratricide. Recall that tidbit about numerous plot twists?

Casting a titanic shadow on the intrigue is the months-absent (although, there might be a coincidental phone call), soon-to be-returning fiancée, Cheryl. Unless you are Jo, who calls her Charlotte. It’s more than Beverley eschewing exposure, shame, and disgrace. It’s Vyvian also flashing a predacious sibling rivalry in wanting Cheryl for himself, (critics call this memetic desire). So why wouldn’t he share his debauched, but accurate, suspicions, and throw Beverley under the proverbial bus?

Remember, no matter how improbable the plot, farce is expected to work, and it does. Goodrum’s script concedes the absurdities laced throughout, and very Frayn-like, mocks itself continuously, a hallmark of exceptional farce, where the language itself almost becomes a character. It is likewise essential to consider that we observe the theatrical universe through a limited prism of our own personal experiences.

Spotlight two actors performing so many roles. There is no teasing the audience or cast. Everyone is in on the jest—It’s genius; there are only two of them! Most farce obliges the characters have blind ignorance to the larger picture. Coincidence, is the heart and substance of The Comedy of Terrors, so beware of feasible cramping while exercising the “suspension of disbelief” muscle as well as the facial smiling muscles. There is no hiding behind its abstraction, coincidence in farce is a staple employed by playwrights from Aristophanes to—well—Goodrum. The Comedy of Terrorsis a veritable “stuffing” of a resplendent celebration by and for actors, thespian wannabes, patrons, and anyone who knows a twin. How fun to witness theatre inside jokes, and the how-not-to-perform a Shakespeare audition, at a Shakespeare festival! But wait, isn’t the guy supposed to get the girl in—THE END?

© Utah Shakespeare Festival 2023 www.bard.org