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IPFW’s Comedy of Errors presents Shakespeare as burlesque
Director Larry Life hopes to get audiences in touch with the Bard’s bawdy side
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Larry Life is a man on a mission.
To hear him tell it, the Artistic Director of IPFW’s Theater Department is on a crusade to save Shakespeare from the academics and “purists” who are seemingly intent on draining all the life and vitality out of the Bard.
“I get very tired of people who go to see Shakespeare and drop their butts into the seat, and think ‘well, I’m going to have to sit through however many hours of this and I’m going to be bored,’” Life says. “Any time I do Shakespeare, I’m out to prove to audiences that he’s not boring. He’s fun, he’s dirty — probably a lot dirtier than people imagine him being…”
The next strike in Life’s campaign to free Shakespeare from the Ivory Tower begins on February 24th when IPFW’s production of Comedy In Errors begins its run at the Williams theater on the IPFW campus. In keeping with the play’s bawdy spirit, Life has set the events in one of his favorite eras of American theater — the burlesque halls of the early 20th century. “We’re doing it as though you took one of the major burlesque theaters of that era, and played it as though they were producing Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors,” Life explains.
That means lots of slapstick, broad humor, clowns, baggy pants, and sex of the “wink wink, nudge nudge” variety. Life adds that the specific time period he’s talking about — roughly 1910 through 1920 — was before burlesque featured strippers, and when the sight of a female leg was enough to qualify something as “adults only” entertainment. That said, there’s nothing subtle or politically correct about the production. “(Burlesque) was to provide entertainment for the tired business man and wake that tired business man up,” Life says. “I think Shakespeare was doing the same thing. In the Globe, he had prostitutes, he had orange sellers and apple sellers, people eating, people wandering in and out of the theater… he had to sell tickets, he had to get people into the theater, and I’m not above doing the same thing.”
This particular work lends itself well to that sort of interpretation. Comedy of Errors is pretty screwball anyway, with the plot hinging on two sets of identical twins and a revolving door of mistaken identities. This IPFW production is a sort of revved up version of elements that are already in the original source material.
As for the cast, Life says that one of the most exciting things about rehearsals are the “now I get it” moments from the actors as they come to grips with Shakespeare in a way they never could just reading the text. “We go through it every night: here are the words, but this is what you’re really saying,” Life says. “I’ve got a lot of young people in the cast who initially were scared to death about doing Shakespeare, but are suddenly having a terrific time in rehearsals discovering this play.”
In keeping with burlesque theater setting, Life commissioned musician Greg Vey to compose original music in the style of the times to accompany the play. At first, Vey and Life talked about performing already composed music, but when Life suggested they write their own soundtrack, Vey jumped at the challenge.
He says he tried to capture the off-kilter plot of the play in the music. “Comedy of Errors is all about misunderstanding and mistaken identity, how something may look familiar but there’s something not quite right about it,” says Vey, who will play live during the performances accompanied by violinist and IPFW music student Cathy Morse. “I’ve taken the ragtime music and added odd harmonic structures and rhythm structures. When you hear it, it sounds kind of like ragtime, but it’s just a little off.”
Meanwhile, Life is unconcerned with how the “purists” might react to Shakespeare set in a burlesque theater. “It’s definitely my take on Shakespeare,” he says. “I’m outrageous; I don’t mind if you use that word. I think the most important thing is that audiences walk out having had a good time, because we’re having a great time doing it.”
COMEDY OF ERRORS
IPFW Williams Theatre
Feb. 24 - Mar. 5.
8:00 p.m. on Feb. 24, 25 and Mar. 2, 3, 4 and at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, Mar. 5 in Williams Theatre. High School Matinees are March 1 & 2 at 10:30 a.m.
Admission: $12 Adults; $9 Seniors; $10 Faculty/Staff/Alumni/Arts Advocates; Free for IPFW students with ID; $7 all other students with ID.