This review of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors in a creative production by the REV Theatre Company at Columbus Square Park was written in form of an Open Letter to Akera, a lively, young teenager, originally from Jamaica, and protégée of the writer, neither of whom had ever seen a Shakespeare play. [Columbus Square Park, 12th and Wharton streets] July 30-31, 2015; revtheatercompany.org.
I was happy that you wanted to join me to see our first Shakespeare together. I even brought an extra chair for the open air performance of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS by the REV Theatre Company at Columbus Square Park. You said that you never saw a Shakespeare production. Well, I’m American and I haven’t seen a live performance of a Shakespeare play either, and certainly not one in a park, let alone in South Philly. Unfortunately, you couldn’t make it. Let me therefore tell you what I experienced.
When I arrived at the ball park, the search for a parking spot took forever—the closest spot seemed miles away from the entrance. Once I found a nice shady corner, I schlepped two metal fold-up chairs for us, so that at least your chair could see the play. I thought, this had better be worth the trouble. As you know, I’m not exactly in shape . . .
It was 5:45 in the evening; the sun was going down but not fast enough, and although I am an avid reader of Shakespearean plays, I really didn’t know what to expect of this performance in the park, other than me feeling the heat.
It was pretty crowded, mainly white folks, but also some people of color sitting in front of me. The play was physical like a sports event, at least in parts. At times, I even thought someone was going to get hurt. This kind of acting is known as “slapstick.” Some of the actors were rolling on the ground, climbing through the crowd, and even sitting on the lap of some audience members. They were all deliberately clumsy, but also humorous, for example when they acted out the simultaneous birth of two sets of twins by pulling four tiny, plastic doll babies from under their dresses. This quick birthing made the audience roar and applaud spontaneously.
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, with its relatively superficial plot—the first play Shakespeare ever wrote—tells a story about the jumbling of identities (as if we don’t already have enough cases of identity crises in America). But there are times in the play that suggests confronting mistakes as opposed to running away from them, and settling family issues instead of ignoring them. For example, the father, Egeon, waits 20 years before seeking his long lost son and wife—a delay which made it more difficult to resolve the issue in the end. I, too, have suffered the consequences of adults not taking action in time, and you probably have, too—another reason why I thought this play was unforgettable, especially as I don’t have many opportunities to see any plays, let alone attend Shakespearean performances.
Akera, I don’t want you to think that you are the only one who hasn’t seen a Shakespeare play. I never told you, but, like you, I come from a black working class background. There are millions of us in the US with the same experience—or lack of experience. Like you, I didn’t grow up with British classics. And that’s why I am writing this letter to you, so that we can go on an exciting new journey into the world of theater.
Here’s a little background on William Shakespeare’s first play, THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
It has been called an incredibly “buffoonish farce”—in plain English, they are making fools of themselves in funny ways. The play is centered on the mishmash of two sets of twins separated at birth after a shipwreck: One set, both named Antipholus, sons of Egeon (a trader of sorts) and the other set, both named Dromio (their servants).
The costumes for this production worked beautifully with the cultural richness I suspect represented the time period. Well, all costumes, except Dromio’s outfit, which might have been fetched from a local thrift store, with his stripped leggings, while his sleeveless shirt that read, “OBEY,” warning us of his oppression and imprisonment as an abused slave.
Another character, the Goldsmith—first jovial and subtle, then aggressive when he felt cheated—wore a soft and perfectly outmoded lavender suit, demonstrating his professionalism and patient demeanor when he, like practically all other characters in the play, mistakes one of the twins and the servant to be the person they knew, when in reality it’s the other twin.
The officers were dressed in marching band outfits, and often caught knitting, eating with suspects, and even dozing off. They served more as entertainers rather than law keepers in this non-traditional production, I guess. And usually, their carelessness meant that trouble was coming, rather than reassuring us that they were keeping the trouble away—which may not be an inaccurate description of police officers today.
Later, Antipholus of Syracuse, and his servant Dromio, visit Ephesus (you may recall that we talked about Ephesus at church the other day). Egeon is also visiting Ephesus, but neither Antipholus nor Dromio is aware of his arrival.
Antipholus eventually discovers his wealthy twin brother, who also has a servant named Dromio, a wife (Adriana), and sister-in-law (Luciana). Sounds confusing, doesn’t it? But then, so are modern soap operas. In the end, we realize who is who—all part of the fun that the young Shakespeare had with this play. We all laughed a lot, as you can imagine.
When you play in a public space, all kinds of things can happen
In the middle of the show, something unexpected happened. We were all sitting on our chairs or blankets in the park, when an ice cream truck was slowly driving down, right next to us—playing those famous old ice cream melodies from its loudspeakers. It was perfect as it accompanied the happiness of the families being reunited with their true identities. Those old melodic chimes brought out the innocent, sweet encounter once the two sets of twins see each other for the first time in 20 years.
Although Shakespeare used quite a few fools in his plays to make his audiences feel relaxed between often violent and tragic scenes, I am quite certain that he did not intend for Dromio to feed popcorn to an audience member from a cheap tin strainer that Antipholus dumped on his head, in true circus-like clown fashion. That scene, like many others, was amusing to watch, but, I must admit, I am so glad that it wasn’t me who got popcorn dumped on my head—after all, I just got my hair done for my birthday, and Butter and Blonde do not mix very well.
REV Theatre, not only revving up Shakespeare, but connecting with us
REV Theatre has proven that the past—no matter how deprived and oppressed many of us may be—must be confronted in order to be restored, hence their dedication to bringing theater to a wide range of audiences, including underprivileged urban city dwellers.
Seen from that perspective, Shakespeare makes much sense: Without Antipholus confronting his marital problems, and both twins confronting the shipwreck, they’d continue to be deprived of their brotherhood. Through this remarkable story, I’ve discovered, like the characters, that even though they are deprived, through confrontation one can discover a great deal. Imagine the things we’d discover by confronting our upbringing by seeing more Shakespearean plays.
Dear Akera, I am sorry that you were unable to see Shakespeare performed for your first time, but here’s some good news. Fortunately, the REV Theatre Company will be doing more performances of other classical plays in our area.
I found the whole REV Theatre Company, under their two directors, Rosey Hay and Rudy Caporaso, to be true to their mission. They are “absolutely committed to making theater a vital part of our society and making live arts accessible to a widely diverse audience.” They do that in most creative, theatrical, and genuine ways. For example, in the performance I saw, the amazing Rudy Caporaso as Dromio actually scooped up a wayward, noisy, little boy from the audience, screaming, “I have a hostage” during this unexpected and spontaneous “arrest” scene, sending the crowd into bursts of loud and long laughter. And when the kid, shortly thereafter, returned to his parents, the crowd went wild.
If only you could have been in the audience that night, you might have been the one scooped from the ground as the famous Rudy Caporaso as Dromio carries you backstage. You never know with REV.
More anon (that’s Elizabethan English for “more later”),