One of Shakespeare’s shorter and earlier works, “Comedy of Errors” tells the tale of two pairs of estranged twins finding their way back to one another with many confusing bumps along the way. It’s a classic story of mistaken identity, carried by the Bard’s deceptively simple plot. The characters range from pitiful to exaggerated to just plain bizarre. UNCW’s Department of Theatre is staging the production, which opens February 20 at the Cultural Arts Building main stage theater.
It is Christopher Marino’s third time directing “Comedy of Errors.” He looks at the opportunity as a way to refine his creative vision.
“The first time I directed the show, I did it through this type of French bouffon, depicting characters as grotesque clowns,” Marino says. “The second time the setting was a dark, magical sideshow place.”
His third rendition places scenes in a more grounded reality. He has set the play during the turn of the century; though, Marino alludes to it being the 20th century, he wants the city to be in transition. It will feature an almost fantastical version of New York City.
“Anytime you do Shakespeare, the expectation is it’s going to be ye old-y, nothing to do with [modern] life—you expect it to be a bit dull,” Marino says. “So I’m constantly thinking how to grab an audience.”
For instance, in 2016 Marino set “Measure for Measure” in Raleigh, NC, post-election, under a conservative rule. In 2017 he turned “Much Ado About Nothing” into a post-Civil War drama. His 2018 adaptation of “Twelfth Night” was loosely based around a rise in the arts and sciences under the Weimar Republic (period in Germany between WWI and Hitler’s rise to power). The original setting of “Comedy of Errors” is the trading city of Ephesus, in the Greek islands. Although Marino doesn’t change the name of the town, he enhances its qualities by making it a melting pot and giving certain characters diverse dialects. Audiences will hear Turkish, French, German and African dialects, as well as a boisterous New York accent. To further reflect city life, costumes will turn away from the long gowns and puffy sleeves associated with the Elizabethan era.
“Taking from Shakespeare’s cue, I don’t get bogged down [by asking myself,] ‘How do we make this authentic?’” Marino says. “[Shakespeare] is writing contemporary material; he was unconcerned with getting things specifically correct.”
Marino doesn’t take the task of world-building lightly; he makes sure he constructs a setting around themes found in the original work. “If I make a decision about a time or a world, it will speak to the elements of the play,” he says. A strange, evolving city is a reflection of the chaos and confusion that characters feel throughout the plot.
The characters’ constant bewilderment will trigger laughter, but Shakespeare also built in scenes of love and intimacy to switch gears. Unlike many directors, Marino knows what to do with these types of scenes.
“One thing I concentrate on is [how they’re] all human—not just ideas of people living 400 years ago,” Marino says. “They want the same things we want; all their wishes and needs are the same.”
In “Comedy of Errors,” characters struggle for self-identity. Antipholus of Syracuse thinks he needs to find his other half, someone to complete him, but realizes he’s looking for an extension of himself. Marino hopes audiences will understand the characters with both clarity and empathy.
In choosing his cast, Marino was inspired by UNCW Department of Theatre students’ drive to do something interesting, different and ambitious. For two of his lead roles, Adriana and Antipholus of Syracuse, Marino has chosen senior Erin Sullivan and sophomore Davis Wood, respectively.
Sullivan is no stranger to loquaciously delivering the 16th century text, having performed in both “Romeo and Juliet” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” during an immersive five-week Shakespeare program, called Make Trouble. Strong female leads are her specialty: She has played a school’s mean girl in “Good Kids” in 2018, a mother in “Tribes” in 2018, and a woman recently released from prison in “Getting Out” last fall. Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus, is a dynamic character who rapidly fluctuates between being dramatic and vulnerable.
“Playing Adriana is so much fun,” Sullivan says. “She’s such a drama queen—over-the-top about everything with many dramatic exits, but it comes from a real place. She has desires and a desperation for love and acceptance; I just get to crank the dial up. A lot of her scenes are her talking about her anger and insecurity. I have learned it’s better to get those emotions out.”
Wood’s Antipholus of Syracuse likes to joke around, a quality both character and actor share. As the youngest cast member, a sophomore sharing stage time with juniors and seniors (this is his first Shakespeare play), Wood admits he has a lot to learn from his fellow cast members and Marino’s direction.
“Instead of trying to take Antipholus’ personality and make it an extension of myself, I need to take my personality and mold it into a more accurate representation of [Antipholus,]” Wood says. “Shakespeare wrote all of the emotions and thoughts of each character in the lines. Once the performer finds the true meaning of the text, there is really no need to ‘act’ anymore.”
Marino says the main challenge of “Comedy of Errors” is its structure. The audience knows ahead of time about the twins’ mix up, so actors must be careful to show their own ignorance of circumstances, else the play loses its dramatic irony.
Despite the play’s challenges, Marino doesn’t stop pushing its boundaries. He utilizes different disciplines to enhance visual and auditory appeal. During the opening soliloquy, a silent movie by UNCW film students will play on the backdrop to engage the audience and help them follow the story. Live musicians also will be present to respond to the acting and introduce characters as needed.
Professional lighting designer Rachel Levy, from Chicago, Illinois, will be a guest on “Comedy of Errors.” The set consists of a two-story structure, split into six different rooms, each reflective of a character’s dwelling.
Marino suggests floor seating for a more intimate experience. For a complete view of the detailed set, he advises balcony seating. The show opens Thursday night.