The characters in Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” “are a group of people who don’t know who they are and don’t know where they are,” according to Ian Belknap, who directed the version of the play coming to the Patten Performances Series on March 4.
“They live in a transient world—right up until the very end, when their world finally becomes grounded.”
This is of course perfect for a loopily comic play with not one, but two, sets of identical twins (masters and servants), whose only-in-comedy convergence in the same place at the same time leads to all sorts of mistaken identities and wacky consequences.
Casting two sets of actors who resemble each other perfectly isn’t the point, Belknap said. “The use of twins is a theatrical convention, part of the larger joke. The audience realizes they aren’t really twins, and so they know something the characters don’t.” Practically speaking, he explained, if the “twins” are roughly the same height, costumed identically, and learn to create similar physical gestures, it works. “Actors love to steal from each other in rehearsal,” he said, laughing. “A lot of it just evolves naturally.”
And these actors have the chops to make the comedy evolve. Belknap is also the associate producing artistic director of The Acting Company, the prestigious touring offshoot of Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theatre that is presenting “Comedy of Errors.” The Acting Company was founded in 1972 by the legendary John Houseman, and has become one of the most famous training grounds for young performers. Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Rainn Wilson and Jesse L. Martin are just a few of the top-ranked actors who honed their skill sets touring with the company.
“The Acting Company develops all your classical skills. First and foremost, our actors must have a deft command of Shakespeare’s verse. The physical skills are shaped by big imaginations and the willingness to take risks,” Belknap said. “What we asked of actors for this show was not circus tricks.” But, he noted, there are references in the production to famously physical comedians, including Charlie Chaplin and Jim Carrey.
“The Comedy of Errors” is a very early play in the Shakespeare canon, possibly even the playwright’s first. Based on the Roman playwright Plautus’s “The Menaechmi,” it’s “a play of firsts,” Belknap said. “It’s the first time we see a Shakespearean storm, which he goes on to use in several other plays; it’s the first time we see his fascination with mistaken identity.” Following its Roman model, the play takes place in one day, which makes it unlike the mature comedies later in Shakespeare’s career. But some characters foreshadow others to come, notably Dr. Pinch, would-be exorcist, who evokes the “Twelfth Night” scene in which Malvolio is tormented by Feste the clown posing as “Sir Topas.”
“Dr. Pinch is a bizarre schoolteacher who may be possessed by the devil,” said Belknap. What’s not to love?
Because “Comedy of Errors” is “not as dense a plot” as many of Shakespeare’s plays, and because this version isn’t, as Belknap pointed out “a doublet-and-hose production,” it’s a likely pick for those who aren’t going to sit through four hours of “Hamlet.” “It’s very accessible, with lots of pop culture references,” said Belknap.
Those who love Shakespeare—and even those who have always been on the Bardian fence—should not lose the opportunity to see a very funny play by a very talented man, acted and directed by some of the country’s best theatrical talent.
The Comedy of Errors
7:30 p.m.Sunday, March 4
UTC Fine Arts Center
Vine & Palmetto Sts. (423) 425-4269 utc.edu