Director David H. Bell sat down to discuss his production of Short Shakespeare! The Comedy of Errors.
David H. Bell
CST: Tell us about the world that you’ve chosen to set your production of The Comedy of Errors in.
David H. Bell: I’ve directed six productions of this play—it’s one of my favorites—and each time, it has inhabited a very different world, and for different reasons. For this production, I wanted to create a world that not only satisfied but really celebrated some of the inherent limitations of a touring show. And so I decided to set our play in Depression-era America when the WPA was operating the Federal Theatre Project. We’ll set our production as a play-within-a-play. A troupe of itinerant actors travels from town to town, with all the costumes, props, and set pieces they can find, loaded into a couple of old trucks. In one town, they put on Hamlet, and down the road they do Romeo and Juliet. And so in a prologue to our show, we’ll see Egeon—who doubles as the troupe’s actor/manager—directing the others as they’re setting up their stage and props, and getting into their make-up and costumes at the top of the show.
The world is going to exist in a layered sense of theater history. There will be props and set pieces used as things other than what they are: a ladder will double as a door, a steamship trunk as a house. There’s a wonderful dramatic imagination that informs the entire show. The sandwich board announces today’s show as Hamlet, but when the truck with the set and half the actors gets caught out on the road somewhere in Nebraska, they have to change their plans. And at the last moment, they decide on The Comedy of Errors instead. That’s the comic world of the kind of show we’re doing, where everything comes out of a comedy of errors, extending to the theatrical world of the performers themselves.
CST: As you create that world for your production, what is essential to it?
DB: You need to create a sense of community, a group of people who function together and become the norm against which any “aliens,” outsiders, are judged. In Comedy, you have a very interesting twist on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the aliens—Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse—come to this very foreign land, where people act as though they know them, as if they belong there. All they can do at first is react with wonder, then they start thinking themselves blessed and begin to fit in, assuming these new identities that have been handed to them.
The first time I directed this play at Chicago Shakespeare, it was a full-length production with a 20-plus-member cast. That production wasn’t designed to our, and so we created an exquisite Mediterranean village, peopled with waiters, fishmongers, bakers—an entire community that had existed in that place for centuries. This time, with fewer actors and a show designed to tour, the challenge became: how can we still create a sense of community but in a very different kind of way?
That’s why I decided to frame the play as a production staged by a traveling troupe of actors, who themselves have their own community, with a history and relationships existing outside the plays they stage. Here’s what I’m imagining: before we hear Shakespeare’s opening lines, we’ll see the traveling troupe members enter. The two characters who play the “Antipholi” will be seated opposite one another, both thinking they’re Errol Flynn and clearly not liking each other. We in the audience watch as that feud is played out “off stage.” By contrast, the characters who play the Dromios might as well be brothers from the get-go, clowning around, etc. When they start the show, it feels like a real parting between them: “I don’t get to see you for a whole 75 minutes? I don’t know if I can stand it!” So when their characters come together at the end of the play, they are reuniting in a way that we’ve anticipated from the very beginning because these two truly do adore each other. The troupe’s nervous actor/manager (who has to play all the roles of the actors who didn’t show up on the bus, which broke down on the road somewhere with half the cast and the other pieces of set…) is anxiously having a near-death experience throughout the whole show. If the character of the actor/manager is still there, inhabiting the persona of Egeon when the reconciliation happens at the very end, it should resonate that all things are ending well—meaning, “We’ve lived through this performance against all odds”—and suddenly that’s a metaphor for the actors whose community extends beyond the limits of the play.
The pay-off for widening the footprint of our show is that we don’t think of these characters as simply commedia types who meet each other on the stage, beat each other up, and immediately bounce right back up into the next scene. There is some larger ramification of the events that happen on the stage.
CST: If you “widen the footprint” to give these characters a reality of their own, you must see a psychological reality to them.
DB: Absolutely. When Antipholus of Syracuse says, “I am to the world like a drop of water” searching for another drop, you have this sense of overpowering want. Clearly he has wandered forever searching for the lost father and brother and mother and Dromio’s brother, and finally he arrives at this place where he should feel most alien but where he is treated as though it’s his home.
There is something that happens in the opening beats of the play when Antipholus of Syracuse becomes the missing piece to a puzzle he doesn’t know he’s in. From that missing piece, we reconstruct the remaining pieces, building a puzzle backwards. Then there’s the other brother, Antipholus’s twin, who has always fit in, always had a home. He doesn’t have the same personality defect manifested in this lifelong search for a lost brother. But there’s still something clearly unsettled about his life. He can’t really focus and commit to his wife Adriana, who loves him deeply but is thoroughly confused by him. He stays away from home, and he doesn’t commit all that much to the Courtesan, either. But he is settled in one place—this is his home—and yet he gets displaced by the missing piece of the puzzle. He, too, gets to be surrounded by an environment that suddenly is hostile to him. It comes to a place where he is in total crisis, too.
CST: Do those psychological conflicts, as well as the plot conflicts, get resolved in the end?
DB: The entire community has been entirely dysfunctional because of a missing piece of the puzzle—and in the course of the play it gets progressively more dysfunctional as those two pieces orbit together. Throughout the chase scene, we have intersecting maniacs trying to put their lives in order. Finally, out of the absolute chaos, those two pieces meet and all becomes clear. Suddenly there is an order in the universe that is so rare in Shakespeare that you almost breathe this cataclysmic sigh of relief. The final piece of the puzzle comes together when the two “Antipholi” see each other for the first time. We should feel that the entire play was all about arriving at this one moment in time. It’s in this one moment when the question that none of them has been asking—“Why are all these errors happening?”—is finally comprehended. You need to create a clear sense of community because it’s the community that needs to be resolved and at peace at the end.
CST: How will the community that you’re creating influence the kind of comedy we’ll see?
DB: Our full-length production was an attempt to make reality-based physical comedy, whereas this is going to be theatrical-based physical comedy. This time, the physical comedy will be motivated more like commedia characters rather than by a “realistic” world of people who live in this place, who make their livings here and are therefore surrounded by all the objects of comedy—like a baker’s dessert bag that spurts out whipped cream, or a grocer’s oranges that can be propelled across stage as weapons.
CST: You’ve referred in our production meetings to the term, “New World Clowning.” What do you mean, and what role will it play in this production?
DB: Cirque du Soleil embodies New World Clowning. Old World Clowning, like all theatrical techniques, follows strict rules. You have the white clown and the red clown and the sad-sack clown—all very specific archetypes. They were derivations of commedia stock characters. Then, in the hands of people like Molière, they progressed into more human archetypes, and in the hands of Shakespeare, they evolved further, where you can barely see the traces of Pantelone in Shylock, except that Shylock is a classic Pantelone. And you see traces of Harlequin and Pedrolino in the Dromio and Antipholus characters, but that’s who they are. Dr. Pinch is Il Dottore, it’s a classic. These are stock characters and these are the people that we tell a story with.
Charlie Chaplin is perhaps the first New World clown, though New World Clowning has roots stretching back to the 1600s when clowns moved to the stage and they find really human quality, but they’re not any more realistic. Chaplin takes this character that you might pass on the street every day, with the tight-fitting jacket and the baggy pants and the bowler hat and the cane, and out of that he creates the ultimate harlequin. Everything he does harkens back to when commedia only had a scenario and no script.
Cirque de Soleil, as I said, is very much identified with New World Clowning. They’ve extrapolated street performance, and out of that they’ve come up with a world that is uniquely itself, which is human-based, not “bit” based. Although they do “bits,” the human story transcends that. That is the essence of New World Clowning, where you don’t see the red nose and the white face and the smiles—or the Bozo hair. What you see is something that’s a lot closer to what we are. It has a broad sense of acrobatics, so there is the “clowning” tradition, the physical comedy, but it’s based in more realistic stuff.
CST: Historically, hasn’t this play’s comedy been played broadly, resembling Old World Clowning more than New World?
DB: I’ve done a full commedia production before, essentially Old World Clowning, and it wasn’t satisfying to me because I didn’t care for anyone. There were physical bits but it was alienating, distancing. You can’t find the underpinnings of Shakespeare’s play that way, whereas New World Clowning really invites the human being in. Imagine that I’m playing Egeon (who is also the actor/manager of this troupe) and I’m missing my actors and my set, and the show’s starting. I grab the coat rack with a hat and overcoat on it, put my arm through one sleeve and, turning around, say the lines of Egeon. He wraps Egeon in care and concern, then turns and puts the hat on and suddenly it’s the Duke speaking. I care more about the actor in this predicament in a way that parallels what I want to care about Egeon, and the weight of that character has meaning to me.
Imagine as Egeon is telling his story, you’ve got the “Antipholi” here and he can actually point to them putting on their makeup. The whole first scene takes place while they’re making up. And then he gets to the line about “this lesser woman had two sons,” and in run the Dromios and they jump over the table and start putting on their makeup. So Egeon as actor/manager is guiding the audience through the Prologue. And there is something commedia, something so bald about it. In this theatrical world that we’re creating, we’re being equally bald, we’re not trying to couch it in the realistic.
CST: And, as you mentioned right at the beginning, you’ve taken the “givens” of a smaller cast and a touring show and shaped your story, Shakespeare’s story, around them.
DB: Yes, and I love that. When I realized, “Oh, I’ve only got thirteen people to tell the story and that means I don’t have a duke,” I went, “Great! How can we tell the story without a duke?” Answering that question is like realizing that you don’t need a balcony for Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene. It is a scene about distance that is overcome, and that distance can be the distance between you and me. There doesn’t need to be a balcony, it is simply distance. So the metaphor, sometimes, can be more complete with less.
CST: And to still be rooted in human behavior, not treated simply as a theatrical device?
DB: You’re looking for a resonance, a metaphor. In our production, that metaphor plays out in the troupe’s offstage life because you can see them offstage, too, in this production. And maybe the Dromio is not paying attention and misses his cue, and leaves Antipholus on stage hanging out there. Maybe that then defines the relationship and why he’s hitting Dromio more convincingly than he might otherwise. That has nothing to do with the play that Shakespeare wrote but, as a metaphor, delivers the show that Shakespeare wrote in a way that we understand better.
CST: In a world where violence never seems particularly dangerous.
DB: Absolutely. As written, somebody is beating up the Dromios every time they’re on stage. You have to make that feel fun—like a Saturday morning cartoon—and not physically dangerous and life threatening. That’s a hard line to find but it is the point.
DB: I want to support the text and I want it to be fast-moving, to rediscover the play’s commedia roots in a way that we didn’t in our full-length production, which was motivated by realistic stage action. This time, we are admitting that we’re on a stage, we’re admitting that we’re actors, so there’s a different kind of contract with the audience, which reads something like: “I don’t have to set up that there’s a real orange on stage in the market for sale before I use it to throw at Dromio. I can reach into a trunk, get an orange, and start throwing things.” And it doesn’t have to be an orange; it can be a Nerf ball. It can be something baldly created simply to throw at Dromio at that moment. We want to always be reminding the audience that the Dromios know that they’re in a play so that the violence is always defined as something that is not real.
CST: How do you avoid making it about the same “beating” over and over again?
DB: The physical action between Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse always has to be out of friendship, even at its worst, as opposed to Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio, which can be a bit crueler. It’s Dromio of Ephesus who gets beaten up a lot, partly due to the rage that Antipholus of Ephesus feels and is unable to put his finger on. Antipholus of Syracuse knows that he’s looking for something; Antipholus of Ephesus only feels the lack without knowing what it is he’s looking for. And in there he’s a time bomb.
CST: Many who are coming to see The Comedy of Errors may be more familiar with Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. How do you see this early play fitting into Shakespeare’s other work?
DB: Getting ready to direct The Taming of the Shrew last year for Chicago Shakespeare, I discovered that some now consider Shrew to be the earlier comedy and that The Comedy of Errors was done rather late in his first period, and I totally get that. This is a much better written comedy in terms of comic plot than is Shrew, for example, but it doesn’t have the kind of complex richness of As You Like It or Twelfth Night, and none of the melancholy of his late plays, such as The Winter’s Tale or Cymbeline.
At the end of this first period he has great plotting and he’s actually observing classical unity in ways that he never had before. I think that he must have been talking to some Frenchmen because they were very much into the unity of time/place/action! In this play, the events happen in a single day and in a single place. It doesn’t fluctuate wildly between comedy and tragedy. Although there is some darkness in Adriana, it’s more to let us in to her, to feel compassion for her. I do think that there’s more light and dark available if you look for it, but compared to the wild coexistence of comedy and tragedy in all of the later comedies—
CST: And even in Romeo and Juliet…
DB: Oh, absolutely. Romeo and Juliet is a comedy that goes horribly wrong with the death or Mercutio. Up to that point, you are in a classic Shakespearean comedy. The Comedy of Errors is the only show that you can do on a unit set—it doesn’t travel from the Capulet house to Friar Laurence’s cell. And it doesn’t have the wide change of time and place that other Shakespeare plays do. It’s why Comedy has often been minimized and separated from the rest of the canon as nothing more than Shakespeare playing with Roman comedy without transcending the form. And that’s so wrong! He is actually writing within the form and by different rules, but he does exhibit everything that is always Shakespeare: there is a complex human soul yearning underneath and fueling us.
The plot does not fuel us as much as that ephemeral yearning does, and that is unique. Antipholus’s line early on, “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop”—really is the key to what Shakespeare is about because he sees an entire universe that’s made dysfunctional by the inability of these two people to recognize each other as brothers. And that dysfunction of the universe is uniquely modern and uniquely Shakespeare, and it is why community is so important in creating the world of this play. It’s not just the “Antipholi” and the Dromios who are suffering; it’s the entire universe contained in the play, and that’s very intriguing to me. Shakespeare never goes back to this particular kind of Roman farce as source material. I think he’s interested in deeper source material, and often in stories that are not as theatrical. In Comedy, you see the influence of Roman comedy in a way you don’t in any of his other plays. The mix-up of identities in As You Like It and Twelfth Night are gender-based; this is not. But in these later plays, he’s simply adding another layer to something he’s already playing with here in Comedy, which is the confusion of identity. Who am I? What happens to my sense of self if I’m treated in a certain way? And their confusion is not just for comic effect; it serves to find the metaphor for the dramatic underpinnings of the piece.
CST: A metaphor that speaks directly to some of the central concerns of adolescence.
DB: Yes, and it should affect a student audience at a number of levels. These are the very confusions that they face every day: of identity, of loyalty, of how to fit in.
There are moments when you’re growing up that you’re defined by what people call you. So there is Antipholus of Syracuse who’s searching for something. He doesn’t know what, and he’s suddenly given a life and people are telling him who he is—total peer pressure—and he agrees. He succumbs to that peer pressure. Similarly, Antipholus of Ephesus, being told that he’s done things that he knows he hasn’t, reacts in rage and confusion. These are very real, very contemporary adolescent issues. Isn’t it Dromio who says, “Am I myself?” And that’s the heart of this adolescent comedy, both because it deals with issues of adolescence but also because it is written in Shakespeare’s theatrical adolescence, if you will.
And that’s what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare: he always finds a way to deal with issues he identifies with and puts them in a play—honestly, truly. Adriana loves someone who can’t love back; she is in love with her illusion. Then Shakespeare puts her in a love scene with a man who doesn’t even know her (though she thinks he does), a stranger who can only act in a disaffected way— manifesting her absolute worst fears. That’s a wonderful metaphor for relationships based more in our illusions and fears than in the reality of another person.
CST: And for the struggle over whether they should accept that identity that they’ve been given.
DB: Which both of the “Antipholi” do—particularly Antipholus of Syracuse because the identity he’s offered is a positive one. But Antipholus of Ephesus ends up outraged and kind of giving up. And then this wonderful thing happens: he’s forced to fight for the very life he was disaffected from right along. He’s forced to claim that thing that he didn’t seem to want. Brilliant!
CST: Is there a particular visual inspiration for the show?
DB: Yes, the scenic and costume designers were both inspired by the work of the twentieth-century American painter Thomas Hart Benton. Part of the Regionalist movement, Benton is best known perhaps for his murals depicting common, everyday scenes of Midwestern life. One of his most famous murals appears in the State of Illinois Center in downtown Chicago.
CST: And to close our conversation, is there a line that for you is key, upon which Shakespeare builds his entire play?
DB: Yes, it’s that one I mentioned before. Early on in the play, Antipholus of Syracuse is left alone on stage for a moment and he tells us about himself: “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop…So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.” (Act 1, Scene 2) What Antipholus is saying here is really the key to what Shakespeare’s about in this play: he sees an entire universe that is made dysfunctional because of the inability of these two people to recognize each other as brothers. And that dysfunction of the universe is uniquely modern and uniquely Shakespeare, and that’s why community is so important.
It’s not just the Antipholus and the Dromio twins who are suffering; it’s the entire universe around them. The parallels to our own world today—in the Middle East, in the former Soviet bloc, in some of our own troubled cities here in the United States—are striking and profound. And that’s why this play for me is never “simply” a farce or broad comedy. *