The jokes may be several centuries old, but they still make people laugh.
That’s the timeless nature of William Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” which The American Shakespeare Center (ASC) will bring to Marion’s Lincoln Theatre this Friday, April 5. While it’s filled with slapstick and physical action, the play also features a very human search for something greater.
Thomas J. Coppola, the ASC’s touring troupe manager, offered this description of “The Comedy of Errors:” “‘Comedy’ is the story of two sets of twin brothers being separated at a very young age after a tragic storm on the seas. Once grown up, one set of twins sets out on a journey to find their long lost brothers, ending up in the very same town in which they reside. Hilarity ensues as mistaken identities run their course as each twin finds themselves being confused for the other -- by servants, wives and even their own father who winds up in town looking for his sons.”
In the midst of all that, famed West-Coast director Desdemona Chiang, who directed this production, reflected, “What is surprising about this play is that it’s a bit of an existential crisis. In The Comedy of Errors, whichever twin is onstage is always the wrong twin. The play gives us few psychological distinctions between the two Antipholuses (or Antipholi?) and Dromios: they serve identical functions in the social system they live in, and their identities are virtually interchangeable. They don’t even have the ability to distinguish themselves by name — their only signifier is one of geographical origin. And for an American audience largely preoccupied with individualism and our own sense of self-importance, this idea can be a bit distressing. Sort of like a nightmare where you’re slowly finding that you’re living a life that doesn’t seem to be yours.”
Chiang concluded, however, “The Comedy of Errors is a story of the search for the whole, that in searching for your other, you come closer to finding yourself, and in doing so, lose yourself to something greater.”
ASC audiences also get to experience the shows with Shakespeare’s staging conditions. Coppola said the most prominent of those is universal lighting. “The audience will be in the same pool of light as the actors (recreating a sunny afternoon), which allows the actors and audience to share a unique experience. The audience can see the actors, but the actors can also see the audience. Most important, the audience can see the rest of the audience. Which is why we, at the American Shakespeare Center, like to say, ‘We do it with the lights on!’”
The tour, which began in September and concludes with the Marion show, features 11 actors, a tour manager, and an assistant tour manager/understudy. Coppola noted that the cast of 11 play 21 parts in “The Comedy of Errors,” which runs two hours including a 15-minute intermission.
Back home at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, a team of several designers, wardrobe personnel and marketing members keep the tour going, he said.
Coppola’s duties range from coordinating with the folks in Staunton to picking what routes the tour bus will take to its next destination to making sure costumes fit to “uphold the director’s vision of the show, while still allowing the actors room to grow.”
He explained, “I am in charge of noting any blocking (the direction given from the director about where things happen in the play) and during rehearsals ‘put the show on paper.’ Think a courtroom stenographer but with actions instead of testimony.”
This year marks Coppola’s fourth tour with the ASC, and his ninth national tour.
Coppola’s admiration of Shakespeare’s work isn’t new. In high school, he performed in “Hamlet.” He was hooked.
“I fell in love with his characters. Shakespeare truly was a genius. He was able to write characters that everyone could identify with -- regardless of class, status, upbringing, etc. Everyone had someone in the play they could go, ‘Oh yeah, I do that!’ or ‘That is so my mom!’”
In college, Coppola continued to pursue his love of Shakespeare. While a student at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, he formed Yorick, the Shakespeare club on campus. “It's one of the largest clubs on campus now, and I’m honored to have been a founding member," he said.
This production is one aspect of the Hand of Time Tour, which is the ASC’s 30th annual tour. Founded as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express in 1988, the ASC grew to international prominence and is now the home of the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre, The Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton. ASC on Tour has performed in 46 U.S. states, one U.S. territory, and five other countries.
The tour features three shows in rotating repertory, also including Shakespeare's “The Winter's Tale” and a new adaptation of Sophocles' “Antigone.”
At the time of Friday’s performance, Coppola noted, the troupe will have traveled more than 20,000 miles, visited 15 states and the District of Columbia. He said, “Our truck carries costumes for four shows, our Touring Discovery Space, our touring Shakespeare Mall merchandise, props, shoes, weapons and over two dozen instruments that the troupe uses to perform our musical pre-show and interludes.”
From Marion, the troupe will return to Staunton and perform for another two months in residency.
“There is so much great theatre being created in Virginia, although this is our first time hosting ASC at the Lincoln, I look forward to making them a part of our seasonal theatre offerings,” said Brian Tibbs, executive director of the Lincoln Theatre. “Not everyone can make it up to Staunton to experience their work. This performance gives us the opportunity to bring the amazing work of the ASC directly to the residents of Southwest Virginia, specifically students in our area.”
Reserved seating tickets, which range from $18 to $28, for the 8 p.m. production of The Comedy of Errors are available through the Lincoln Theatre’s website at www.thelincoln.org or by calling the box office at 276-783-6092. This performance is made possible with support from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Touring is amazing,” Coppola told his alumni magazine earlier this year. “Getting to see the country and meet new people is one of the coolest perks for a job ever. I love the challenge of working with new contacts at each of the venues, and figuring out how to adapt our show and what needs to change, what can stay, etc. It keeps the experience fresh and new.”
As for Shakespeare’s humor, he observed, “It’s also really cool seeing what 400-year-old jokes might land in one area of the country and not in another.”
Friday evening, Lincoln audience members will discover which ones work in Southwest Virginia.