By Kate Hamilton
When “comedy” is in a play’s title, the production better deliver. And if a play is billed as a farce, it has even more specific boxes to check. Some key elements of farce include broad physical comedy, exaggerated characters, entrances, exits and clever puns. In other words, audiences come to expect mistaken identity and a lot of spanking. Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors does not disappoint, but in Don Wadsworth’s tight, 90-minute production in the Phillip Chosky Theater, it achieved much more than cheap laughs.
When confronted with The Bard, Wadsworth likes to find an exciting and relatable entry point for contemporary audiences. In the case of this play, he was “twinspired.” After watching the documentary Three Identical Strangers about separated-at-birth triplets reconnecting later in life, Wadsworth needed to find some twins to learn more about what it feels like to miss one’s double. This anxiety and jabbing pain of separation would provide the Antipholuses (Antipholi?) with a poignant drive to reconnect whether they knew it or not. Dramaturg Carley Johnson tracked down 5 sets of identical male twins at Carnegie Mellon. They gathered in Wadsworth’s office and shared their visceral feelings of interconnectedness. They even mentioned that the longest they’d gone without their twins was a few days and painful ones at that. Wadsworth had found his frame and he was excited to “give the play a little heart.” The results were interspersed scenes where the sets of twins wandered Ephesus, barely missing each other, and an ending speech moved from earlier in the play about Antipholus of of Syracuse seeking a matching drop of water in the ocean.
In the rehearsal room, specificity was the name of the game. Wadsworth explained the paradox of comedy rehearsal: the actors must practice beats with precise movement and vocal timing to a room where nobody is laughing. It’s difficult to discern what works until an audience is present. The actors, like Asa Gardiner, were excited that they “were able to explore and enjoy [their] impulses” before nailing down the blocking. Wadsworth worked with them to find every joke, identify its pay-off, and experiment with its delivery. He likened comedy to a muscle and emphasized the importance of exercising it.
“It’s a clever play,” Wadsworth said, “we need to come at it with a similar kind of cleverness.”
The set, music and costumes created a very particular and wacky world for the farce.
Scenic designer Sasha Schwartz said, “Our goal was to make a unique Ephesus in which all of the crazy goings-ons can take place, while providing blocking and prop opportunities to underline the text and make it easier for the audience to understand.”
Wadsworth followed up, mentioning that they stopped worrying about period in order to surprise the audience. Cue a crazy door featuring a slot machine, tic-tac-toe and a rewinding crank. The door moment was one of Schwartz’s favorite design challenges and it exemplified the collaboration required between the creative and production teams for every moment of the show. Every piece of architecture the actors interacted with was there to support their emotional journeys. Schwartz and Wadsworth emphasized that with any comedy, it can be tempting to descend into uncomplicated whimsy and they worked to avoid that pitfall.
The production’s other bells and whistles, quite literally, mustn’t be ignored. Javi Galarza’s playful and original sound design underscored the transitions and immediately offered the audience tonal hints. It helped the actors and scenic designers, too. Schwartz and Galarza established a synchronistic Ephesus where the music informed the scenery. For example, the floor resembled wood stripes on lute guitar, piano key steps led to Antipholus of Ephesus’s home, and the see-saw resembled a glockenspiel. The overall result was striking and captured something about the interconnectedness of the universe’s seemingly random circumstances, like two sets of shipwreck-separated twins winding up in the same town with their parents…
The School of Drama’s Comedy of Errors relied on immense and honest collaboration from the director to the assistant stage manager. Something as minuscule as a misplaced prop could disrupt the cadence and miscarry a moment. Wadsworth wanted his collaborators to know that any impulse was fair game.
He entered every rehearsal with the same reminder, “Whoever has the funniest idea wins. It doesn’t have to be me.”