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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 25, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Comedy of Errors, in Miami, Swinging to a Latin Beat

There will be subtle echoes of "Miami Vice"

in this year’s Princeton Rep production of "The Comedy of Errors."

Shakespeare’s early comedy about two sets of identical twins will

be performed under the stars in the amphitheater at Princeton’s Pettoranello

Gardens, opening Friday, June 27, and continuing weekends through

July 13. Director Tom Rowan has relocated the action from ancient

Greece to Miami in the mid-1980s, a time and a place that seems to

him a perfect match for the play’s knockabout action that involves

shady business dealings, romantic encounters, and political intrigue.

What better spot to find the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios

than on the Miami boardwalk and at the beach where their rambunctious

misadventures can be enjoyed amid Latin flavored disco glamour and

within a sexy vacation paradise. Rowan sees the update as important

for not only seeing the obvious humor in the play, but also in appreciating

the plight of a family separated for years by a sea. As he says, during

our phone conversation, "the reward at the end of the play of

seeing a family that was violently split apart reunited is very real,

but not only to the Latino population of Miami."

As a precursor to Shakespeare’s later romances like "Pericles,"

"Cymbeline," and "The Winter’s Tale," Rowan sees "The

Comedy of Errors" confronting issues above and beyond its farcical

situations. "This," as Rowan sees it, "is especially true

of Antipholus of Ephesus," who is abusive to his wife, and when

he is angry he goes off to be comforted by a courtesan. Notwithstanding

this plot device that doesn’t always sit well with contemporary attitudes,

Rowan, sees the comedies, in general, as appealing to al fresco summer

audiences.

As co-founder and artistic director of the Mirror Players, a summer

Shakespeare company in Denver, Rowan not only directed "As You

Like It," "Love’s Labour’s Lost," and "A Midsummer

Night’s Dream," but also the tragic "Hamlet," and "Romeo

and Juliet."

"We all trained ourselves well for the bigger world," says

Rowan of the five years that the Mirror Players performed in Denver

(1989 to 1994). It won Rowan a director’s award, provided a great

opportunity to reinforce his professed love of Shakespeare, and provided

a practical application for his 1992 MFA in directing from the University

of Washington.

I ask Rowan if he thought Shakespeare’s comedies were easier for a

director who didn’t want to deal with complex character analysis.

"The one thing about all of Shakespeare’s plays are the rich characters;

all of them have great dimensionality about them." As he had already

pointed out regarding the disturbing traits of Antipholus of Ephesus,

as well as the increasing loss of self-identity suffered by Antipholus

of Syracuse, the subtler and more serious aspects of the play are

just as compelling as anything in "Hamlet." About the latter

tragedy,h he adds: "I found quite a few laughs in that one."

"The comedies always have the potential to turn serious with possible

tragedy lurking around the corner," he says. The sentiment is

mirrored in the increasing frustration and confusion of the characters

in "The Comedy of Errors."

Rowan says that what appeals most to him about the play is watching

the fun that audiences allow themselves "with a willing suspension

of disbelief." They’re allowed to get just as confused as the

so-called identical characters, even though they can easily tell them

apart. "Of course," says Rowan, "both sets of twins —

as implausible as it is — are seen wearing the same clothes."

He adds, "Same clothes, even though they have been separated since

they were babies. But once the mistake is first made and how it escalates

more and more, there’s an enormous comic energy that builds and builds."

As this is Rowan’s first go-round with "The Comedy of Errors,"

as well as his first time directing for the Princeton Rep Shakespeare

Festival, he admits that it is a challenge working outdoors. But it

is also a challenge because in "The Comedy of Errors," "there’s

a lot of visual and physical humor that needs to be controlled and

orchestrated."

The Festival’s artistic director, Victoria Liberatori, approached

Rowan to direct, after seeing his staging of "The Two Gentlemen

of Verona," for Theater Ten Ten, an intimate neighborhood theater

located in the basement of an Upper East Side Park Avenue church.

Also directing "Twelfth Night," and "The Winter’s Tale,"

for Ten Ten, Rowan says that as a Shakespeare director, he wants to

take on each of the plays as it becomes offered.

Rowan is very specific about the qualities that he is

looking for in casting a play by Shakespeare. "I always look for

actors who have a real vocal ability with the verse. I can always

tell when the language is ringing through their whole body. Then I

know I’ve found what I’m looking for. In our culture we tend to talk

on the phone a lot and communicate in disconnected sentences. Our

voices tend to get small and flat. Shakespeare is all about opening

up your instrument." Rowan says he has found a cast that can do

just that.

But has Rowan been able to find two Antipholus’s and two Dromios that

can not only "open up their instruments" but also look just

enough alike so that the audience can tell them apart. "Certainly

if I found two sets of twin actors (cause for laughter), then much

of the humor would be lost and the audience wouldn’t be able to tell

the difference. The fun is for the audience to be two steps in front

of the actors at all time. Although the two Antipholus’s in our company

could pass for brothers, a white and an African-American actor are

playing the two Dromios. The racially mixed pair makes for a lovely

moment at the end of the play when one Dromio says to the other, ‘Let’s

go in together, not one before the other.’

The cast features the returning Nell Gwynn, a critically acclaimed

festival actor, about whom the "Star Ledger" wrote (on last

year’s performance in "King Lear"): "Gwynn delivers Elizabethan

language with a clarion voice, making it comprehensible to even the

most untutored ear." In "Errors," she plays Adriana, the

long-suffering wife of playboy Antipholus of Ephesus.

Also in the cast are Jo Benincasa, as Antipholus of Syracuse; Chris

Meyer, as Antipholus of Ephesus; Gaius Charles II, as Dromio of Syracuse;

Jason Henning, as Dromio of Ephesus; Sheryle Wells, as Luciana; plus

Bob Armstrong, Victor Dickerson, Benton Greene, Henning Hegland, Alfredo

Narciso, Carolyn Smith, and Alison White.

Designer Tim Amrheim’s setting will include an Art-Deco hotel and

a fancy beachfront condo; sound designer Ken Travis will accommodate

the pop-rock music of the ’80s, costumer Joanne Haas will be using

a "Miami Vice" look as inspiration, and choreographer Don

Bill will undoubtedly include a conga line.

Although born in New York, Rowan moved with his family to Denver when

he was a youngster. Growing up with theater on his mind isn’t surprising

considering that his mother is a professional actor, who, he says,

appeared in a number of plays he directed in Denver. His younger brother

is currently on the road with the musical "Seussical."

Being named a Drama League Directing Fellow in 1998 brought Rowan

back to New York. He explains, "I was one of four directors chosen

in a very competitive process. We were taken to a different play every

night, introduced to producers, actors, designers, and casting directors,

all as a way of learning what New York theater is about. Each of the

Fellows gets two assistant directing gigs, one off-Broadway and one

at a regional theater. Then we each directed a one-act play and the

quadruple bill was presented as a showcase."

For the last three years, Rowan has been the literary manager at New

York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre, where he recently directed Craig Lucas’s

"Grief" and Deborah Grimberg’s "The Honey Makers,"

in the EST Marathon. The biggest difference he finds in directing

Shakespeare from directing contemporary plays is the preparation to

be able to answer all the questions a cast may ask about Elizabethan

figure of speech and the references.

The only thing he says the audience needs to be prepared for, however,

is laughing. "Isn’t it wonderful that people have been laughing

at Shakespeare’s comedies for 400 years," he says. "It really

connects you to the human experience and history." Yes, I’m thinking,

those two sets of twins swinging to a Latin Beat in the Big Orange

in the ’80s. It may not exactly be "Miami Vice," but it is

history and definitely comedy.

— Simon Saltzman

Comedy of Errors, Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival,

Pettoranello Amphitheater, Community Park North, Route 206 and Mountain

Avenue, 609-921-3682. Opening night for the summer season of professional

Shakespeare presented free under the stars in the amphitheater in

Pettoranello Gardens. Performances are Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays

at 8 p.m., to July 13. Friday, June 27, 8 p.m.

The season continues with "The Merry Wives of Windsor," directed

by Victoria Liberatori, with performances Fridays through Sundays,

from August 1 to 17.

Tickets are free with a suggested $10 donation for adults only. Call

for details: 609-921-3682 or visit www.princetonrep.org.


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