‘Outrageous ethnic stereotypes? Vaddaya talkin’ bout?’ Zac Kelty, Steven Walters and Joseph Holt
Summer in North Texas typically finds theaters offering musical comedies or plays by Shakespeare. Second Thought Theatre has managed to do both at once – with a raucous, hip-hop version of The Comedy of Errors. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this review.
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Many people still believe The Comedy of Errors is William Shakespeare’s first comedy, even his first play. Actually, scholarly consensus has pushed it back — possibly even to his third comic outing (after he’d already succeeded with several history plays). With its goofy plot and bawdy humor, it’s easy to understand why people see Comedy as a first effort.
But all the slapstick silliness can be explained by the play’s origins: It was part of the holiday revels at the Inns of Court in 1594. The Inns were London’s all-male law schools — meaning drunken law students were the play’s first audience. Think of The Comedy of Errors as Shakespeare’s rowdy, frat-house entertainment.
That’s pretty much how four NYU students — Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jason Catalano, GQ and Erik Weiner — saw it in 1999 when they created The Bomb-itty of Errors. They cleverly (though not consistently) translated Shakespeare’s play into old-school, Beastie Boy rap rhythms and transplanted Shakespeare’s world of dimwits and deceivers, brothels and convents, into the hip-hop culture of loud caricature. It’s like a rap video full of weed and bling, hoodies and playas and white boys trying to be street. The adapters devised a prologue to explain the play’s unlikely back story, how all the main characters, both masters and servants, are identical.
“Four months later in a downtown hospital
Betty gave birth to what was then impossible.
Quadruplets! Four baby boys.
I’m talking four – what? – beautiful bundles of joy.”
All of this doesn’t mistreat Shakespeare much. The Comedy of Errors never had profound poetry or characters. Shakespeare flattered the deep legal minds who first saw the play over their beer mugs with his nudge-nudge borrowings from Roman comedies. It’s an instance of the playwright showing he could throw down classic-style against his ‘University Wit’ rivals like Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene.
But Shakespeare’s Latin sources provide the plot machinery and some names; other than that, Comedy of Errors has always been about puns, plot shenanigans and rapid-fire gags. In fact, the Bomb-itty adaptation — with all its crudities — works relatively better at this than quite a few zany ‘Wild West’ or deco-’20s or Beverly Hills versions I’ve sat through, even better than some more earnest, conventional models.
How? Everyone’s gone on about the hip-hop music, and how the play is something of a compendium-commentary-already-nostalgic-history of beats. Fine. Terrific. Keepin’ it pop-culture-bright and relevant. That’s mostly decoration, really, although it’s the decoration that will bring a younger audience in the door and happily chant along, slinging the rappers’ slang. But it was condensing the play to fit just four male actors that was the Bomb-itty adapters’ truly smart move. All those frantic costume changes ramp up the speed, the general air of hilarious desperation (and identity confusion).
Best of all, having only four actors brings back that truly grand Shakespearean tradition: the drag act.
Directed by Amy Anders Corcoran, the Second Thought Theatre’s show is often too loud, too fast – sometimes, you can’t catch the lyrics. Its set is your basic jungle-gym-scaffolding-black-box-experimental theater circa 1964 (with a computer and video upgrade). But it features two fine drag turns — Drew Wall as a courtesan and Joseph Holt as an angry wife — but also a truly lovable one: Zac Kelty as a dim bulb blonde. Where Holt and Wall are hot-headed and tearful or hot-headed and imperious — like Chris Kattan doing Mango — Kelty is unpredictable: sweet, determined, clueless and honest by turns. Indeed, if any North Texas company ever gets around to staging One Man, Two Guvnors, they should hang on to Kelty’s phone number in Australia — where he lives. He’d make a superb stand-in for that show’s current London-to-Broadway star, James Corden.
Beyond the drag acts, we get outrageously broad ethnic caricatures that, if you’re offended by them, it may be because you’ve missed the point about no one taking any of this nonsense seriously (Steven Walters excels as the elderly Jewish jeweler). And we have video messages and lots of getting the audience to clap along, sing along and occasionally get assaulted by the actors’ flying sweat. This Comedy of Errors is trashy, stupid, tasteless fun.
Drunken law students? No better audience for it.
All images by Karen Almond