Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of Center Stage, has been leaving Baltimore over the past few weeks to go to prison in New York. He’s also been busy in homeless shelters and recreation centers in all five boroughs. Kwei-Armah is directing an exuberantly playful Comedy of Errors for the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit.
Way back in 1957, Joseph Papp had the idea of bringing Shakespeare for free to people all over the city who’d never seen a play by the Bard. Papp went on to create the New York Shakespeare Festival, which each summer famously offers first-class productions in Central Park for free, and at the Public Theater, a New York institution that has nurtured great theater for more than half a century.
The Public is on an amazing roll right now, what with its Broadway hits, Hamilton and Fun Home, and such intriguing shows this season as Barbecue, First Daughter Suite, and Eclipsed, which will transfer to Broadway early next year.
Unlike other New York theatrical institutions I could mention, its success hasn’t pushed aside its original mission.
In its sixth year now, the Public’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit has recaptured Papp’s initial inspiration by performing works of Shakespeare for free in such places as the Riker’s Island Correctional Facility and the Brownsville Recreation Center and the BronxWorks Living Room homeless shelter, touring the city for several weeks and then landing back in the Public’s downtown home for several more.
Kwei-Armah, who directed the Mobile Unit’s Much Ado About Nothing two years ago, returns with The Comedy of Errors, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and his shortest. This slapstick tale of mistaken identity involving two pairs of identical twins lost and then found is not among the most beloved nor admired of Shakespeare’s plays, which may make directors feel they have special license to fiddle with it. As it happens, the Public presented this very play in Central Park just two years ago, starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater and directed by Daniel Sullivan, who set it amongst gangsters in upstate New York in the 1940’s. Why? Perhaps a weak pun: Syracuse is the name of one of the two Greek city-states having a trade war in The Comedy of Errors; Syracuse is also the name of the fifth largest city in New York State.
Kwei-Armah attempts a more relevant transposition, connecting the trade war in Ancient Greece with the border conflict between the United States and Mexico. The simple set is a mat that looks like a stretch of asphalt road right at the border between Syracuse and Ephesus. Cast members dressed in shirts that say “border patrol” arrest a cowboy-hatted Egeon (David Ryan Smith.) Egeon tells his tale of woe – how his twin sons and their twin servants were separated by a shipwreck many seasons ago – to Solina (Zuzanna Szadkowski, in place of Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus.) Solina speaks in a Southwestern twang, wears a trucker hat that says “Make Ephesus Great Again,” and, just in case you miss the reference, carries a cardboard cut-out fan of Donald Trump. Yet, moved by Egeon’s tale, Solina gives him a day to cough up the fine or face execution.
This first scene was Shakespeare’s way of explaining the convoluted premise before the comic action begins. But the Mobile Unit also provides an illustrated synopsis in the program, clear and appealing enough for it to be a model for such guides in the future.
Immediately afterward, Egeon’s lost son Antipholus of Syracuse (Bernardo Cubria) arrives in Ephesus with his servant Dromio of Syracuse (Lucas Caleb Rooney), and are immediately misidentified by various and sundry citizens of Ephesus to be Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus. The people who do the misidentifying include the wife and sister-in-law of Antipholus of Ephesus. One can excuse these characters’ confusion. The same two actors play both twins – Cubria and Rooney manage a dexterous pair of performances that take advantage not just of their Shakespearean chops but of their clown skills, donning different hats to distinguish between the different characters. The hat tricks are especially delightful when the two sets of twins finally meet.
Together, the actors make it their mission to engage as many individual members of the audience as they can – greeting some of us cheerfully before the show begins, then during the show sometimes enlisting audience members to stand in for the (temporarily body-less) twin, sometimes speaking the lines directly to specific people in the audience. This must have gone over great in the prisons and shelters full of ignored and neglected people. At the Public itself, with its sophisticated theater-going crowd, it goes over great as well.
Full disclosure: I am a monthly guest at Bernardo Cubria’s weekly theater podcast Off and On, offering a short preview of shows that are opening in New York.
The Comedy of Errors is on stage at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, N.Y., 10003, (in the East Village below Astor Place) through November 22.
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