The Comedy of Errors
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kathy Curtiss
If you're going to mess with the text, you will without a doubt irk a whole lot of people. This probably holds more true for the work of Shakespeare than any other playwright. Whereas the modernists have estates that can and will sue a wayward performance regardless of size
, the long-dead playwright falls far from the coverage of copyright law. Nevertheless, there are legions of people who still understand that, quite frankly, he knew best. Kathy Curtiss' brash, contrarian direction of The Drilling Company
's Shakespeare in the Parking Lot
production of The Comedy of Errors
(through July 23)—your true populist alternative the Public Theater's often-inaccessible Shakespeare in the Park
—entirely does away with the Bard's intended meaning-making web of allusions. "Go bear it to the St. Mark's Hotel," says Antipholus of Syracuse, "peruse the hipsters, gaze upon the buildings." Even "tweeting politicians" and the Continental's cheap shots on Third Avenue get nods.
This isn't to suggest that the argument against modernizing isn't tired; it is inept. Updating props and locales is often the ultimate test for the language and thematic concerns of Shakespeare's plays. If the work can maintain the same expressiveness whether the feuding families are battling with rapiers and daggers in ancient Syracuse and Epidamnos, or with pizza paddles and keys to a midsize sedan in a Lower East Side pizzeria, we understand why the texts are so successful and have endured. The particular Elizabethan convention under which Shakespeare wrote, lacking the illusionistic constraints of successive traditions, gives the work lasting presence and allows directors to take major creative liberties. However, altering words, phrases or entire chunks of dialogue does not fly quite so easily.
Philologistics aside, it's safe to assume that for an Elizabethan audience ancient Greece and Sicily were very distant places. This suggests that by setting The Comedy of Errors
in those exotic locales laden with inter-textual references, Shakespeare sought to create a distancing effect. The references were meant to be at a remove from the popular consciousness of the contemporaneous audience. Simply saying "Ludlow Street" instead of "the bay of Ephesus," for instance, sounds very discordant and aurally jarring within the Renaissance English framework. It disrupts the cadence in the spoken word and sticks out, drawing attention towards rather than away from itself. The entire way one processes the language changes and so do interpretations of the work. These moments are certainly crowd-pleasers and earn laughs, but they deemphasize everything outside the immediately familiar, making it harder to pick up on the complex wordplay and read through the archaic constructions.
That said, you still have to give it up to the cast for putting the work through a test to rival any extreme modernization. A municipal parking lot is something of an anti-theater; cars drive right through, police and ambulance sirens ring out, buses screech to a halt, construction crews rush to wind down the day—the atmospheric noise is almost overpowering. It must put a terrible strain on any actor trying to project and play. It's a feat and an accomplishment in and of itself. So to hell with the purists; the audience seemed by and large to enjoy itself, and this is far from your worst option for free Shakespeare played outdoors this season.
(Photo: Lee Wexler)