When Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors, he took Plautus’s Menachmae as his ancient source, then added several more characters including a second set of identical twins, creating more trauma, more chaos—and more laughs. Thus it follows in a long and venerable tradition that Barbara Gaines asked comedian and writer Ron West to collaborate with her in creating a play-outside-the-play framework for her upcoming production of The Comedy of Errors, which she wanted to take place on a movie sound stage at Shepperton Studios—at the height of the London Blitz in WWII.
Ron West is a natural for the task at hand. He directed and co-wrote with Phil Swann The People vs. Friar Laurence, The Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet, which played for two summers in the theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. He has directed numerous shows for The Second City, including Curious George Goes to War, for which he received a Jeff Award. He has appeared as an actor in film and television, most notably in recurring roles on 3rd Rock from the Sun and Malcolm in the Middle. Before the start of rehearsals, CST emailed West some questions about his collaboration with Barbara Gaines.
CST emails: What, The Comedy of Errors isn’t funny enough for you?
RON WEST emails back: It's certainly funny, but as I am a direct descendant of Plautus, whose work Shakespeare stole, I am working on the script solely to right a wrong which was done to my family about 1,300 years ago.
CST: What do you remember about the first conversation you had with Barbara about the project?
RW: I live in Los Angeles, where the phrase "I would like to work with you on something," is said as frequently as, "I will have the Venti Coffee of the Day," and 99% of the people who say, "I would like to work with you on something," vanish like an F-16 into a cloud bank. So two years ago when I was walking down the hallway at CST and Barbara said to me, "I would like to work with you on something," I said, "Okay, let's talk about it." I have begun to wonder if "Okay, let's talk about it," is actually a spell that makes people disappear. But Barbara didn't disappear, meaning either she was serious or she had an antidote to the spell. Then one day we disappeared into a cloud bank together, where we began working on this version of The Comedy of Errors. In this case the cloud bank was The Billy Goat on Navy Pier. I liked Barbara's ideas because I am a bit of a maven on World War II and was anxious to apply my peerless knowledge of films like The Dirty Dozen.
CST: What was your process working together?
RW: We would talk a little bit on the phone and then I would go and type something. Sometimes it was even what we had talked about.
CST: How were the new characters created?
RW: The big breakthrough came when we decided the characters would be similar to Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, et al. but were not specifically Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, et al. It liberated the writing and saved the actors from having to do imitations. I also did some research and reminded myself about who would have been at a film studio in the UK in the 1940s. For instance, most of the men would have been veterans of the Great War. Later on, I started making up characters for a variety of reasons, not least of which was, "There should be a fat guy."
CST: How do the two stories work together—Shakespeare’s and the frame you and Barbara have come up with?
RW: Shepperton Studios is making a film of The Comedy of Errors. Everybody who works at the studio—actors, technicians, military types—has a role in the film. The Luftwaffe is bombing them so they have to get the film done as soon as possible. There are intersections between the lives of the Shepperton characters and the lives of the Shakespearean characters. For instance, Emerson doesn't want to be known as a swashbuckling matinee idol anymore, so he protests when his character, Antipholus of Syracuse, is required to use a sword.
CST: Do you anticipate making any changes once you are in rehearsal with the company?
RW: Apparently you know nothing about the theater. When you produce a new script, the audience hears the same words the actors read on the first day of rehearsal. There are never any changes. Oh, sometimes you have to get the actors to talk louder, but that's about it. We did change the word "tiring," meaning "hair preparation," to the word "coiffing," meaning "hair preparation," because my ancestor Plautus intended the word "coiffing" to be used. "Tiring" was an invention of Shakespeare to insult my ancestors.
CST: You’ve worked on Shakespeare adaptations here at CST before. What is it about Shakespeare that keeps you coming back?
RW: I've really gotten into his plays in the last couple of years—I have seen them all now. It was a cheap way to get a master's degree, and I didn't have to teach undergrads. I think one of things that's really great about Shakespeare is there are big laughs in the most unexpected places. Like when Richard III is asking the Lady Anne to marry him... even though he killed her husband and her father-in-law... and in Richard II, when he says, to excuse his panic, "Am I not king? I forget myself." Another great thing about Shakespeare is he is dead, so, if I change it, what's he gonna do?