At Bucknell, our season selection process includes following a rotation (musical every other year, devised production every 4 years, period pieces every other year and a Shakespeare every 4 years.) In 2016, when our season advisory committee met, I proposed a selection of 3 Shakespeare pieces to choose from as I was slotted to direct a Shakespeare production the following spring semester. I proposed two tragedies and one comedy. The response was instantaneous. Both the student members of the committee, as well as the faculty in the committee, longed for a comedy. In fact we were all longing for a comedy, I believe, because we were all sensing the very imminent and serious change coming to our country the very next year. Although the elections hadn’t yet occurred, our campus was feeling the bifurcation happening throughout society and indeed on our own campus. Our committee realized that they and by extension the campus, was feeling a need to laugh and celebrate joy with at least one show in the following season. . The show I proposed that was accepted was Comedy of Errors. Having been in a production of Comedy of Errors myself as an undergraduate actor, I was very excited to revisit as a director and play with the elements of delight, physical comedy, race and gender as well as clowning.
My overall goal for this production of Comedy of Errors was to present a playful look at viewpoint, playing with ideas about what we know and what we don’t know and how that affects the choices we make, even how we see the world – all as lived through the experiences of the characters onstage. I wanted all of the characters to be grounded firmly in the world of comedy, which meant in this show, exaggeration of slights, near misses, color, music and the ability to embrace all the craziness of life by the conclusion. I wanted it to feel not like a tragic surgery into who we are underneath everything but instead like a gentle reminder that our essential selves far surpass any preconceived notion that our society and/or our egos would have us believe. My concept for the production was: ‘Who we are is confined by what we (think we) know and freed by the truth of our ignorance.’ Some of the themes I was most interested in exploring include: ·identity; how outside influences define identity and what is true identity? Also; how do we define ourselves in relation to others including appearances; how perception functions in the story, how self-perception seem to always be less important than how others perceive the self. In addition; how appearances in the play are almost always false; family and how the search for family is a search for one’s own identity as defined by being a part of something more. Lastly, I wanted to explore how our identities are shaped by our relationships.
One of the most important parts of preparing the audience for this production was to precede the action of the play with a somewhat elaborate framing system. Before we began the play, we set up the lobby and the house to feel as if we were coming into an amateur production of Comedy of Errors. We created a callboard with the names of fake actors with pictures of our real actors, we handed out ‘fake’ programs and we also had the actors mingling with the audience as they entered, but as their ‘actor’ characters – which we created in rehearsal as a part of this framework. Once the audience was mostly in, we seated them and had one of our actors, acting as one of the artistic directors of the company, greet the audience and called the rest of the actors to the stage. There they told the audience that they were going to pick names out of a hat to show what great actors they were and that they could play any role. We had set up previously that the names had been carefully arranged and that there was a mix up (setting up the tone of the upcoming play within a play) and suddenly everyone was getting characters that were physically at odds with who they were. This allowed us to be playful and overemphasize the disparities in our twins (black and white Dromios, tall and short Antipholi.) We were even able to play up a ‘regular’ guy getting cast as Luciana and having to figure out how to play a more submissive character to a more dominant tall female Antipholous in the love scenes. We worked hard to allow for a sense of playfulness while at the same time acknowledging that we were leaning into the differences in our actors for comedy, as if the ‘actors’ in the play were always trying to play off what was scripted rather than what actually was. This for me was the most successful approach to the idea of playing with perception on a meta-level and the audience loved it. To support these goals and the goals of a light bright comedy we also enjoyed bright colorful costumes and scenery as well as opportunity for sight gags such as one pair of twins coming up from beneath the stage through a well. The music was also light and playful and moved the action well. The warmth of the lighting supported the whole piece.
The black actor who played one of the Dromios and I enjoyed creating the moment when he (the fake actor) realized he was playing a twin to a white actor and it was a joy to offer that to the audience. The actor playing the actor playing Luciana was also afforded some great work in rehearsal in which we asked them to let their actor-characters play their Shakespearian characters with integrity. In the earnest attempt to be something other than that which they normally were – that was where the comedy was, not in stereotypes or tongue in cheek. Working on the love scenes between Luciana and Antipholous was also wonderful as we begin to unpack traditional romance tropes as we explored how to play with gender both as the actor-characters and the characters themselves. I was at one point worried that the meta-framing of the play within the play may confuse the audience, but overall it did just the opposite. We enjoyed the story of the Comedy of Errors with wonderful and playful mini-moments of incongruities with contemporary issues of race and gender. It was the perfect way to embrace the joy of the play fully. In addition working with the large cast to work on clowning and physical comedy, pace and timing as well as the creative element of creating their ‘actor’ characters was great fun that I believe was palpable to an audience. I was very pleased with the outcomes of this delightful production.