The Band sang “Life Is a Carnival” in the 1970s, but William Shakespeare hummed that tune several centuries earlier. His comedies tend to feature magical nights, low humor, and love as a rigged game that everyone still lines up to play.
Boston audiences have seen the carnival idea made explicit in Shakespeare productions this year. The American Repertory Theater’s “The Tempest” featured a two-headed Caliban and magic acts overseen by Teller of Penn & Teller. Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “Twelfth Night” on the Common this summer was inspired by director Steven Maler’s visit to the surreal party that is Miami’s carnival-esque Wynwood Arts District.
Now director David R. Gammons takes the idea one step further, with the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of “The Comedy of Errors,” beginning performances Wednesday at Brighton High School.
Shakespeare’s play revolves around two sets of long-separated identical twins and the confusions and confrontations that result when they set out to reunite. Mulling his concept months ago, Gammons found himself inspired by lines describing the town of Ephesus, where the action takes place, as full of “nimble jugglers that deceived the eye,” sorcerers and cheaters “and many such-like liberties of sin.”
So audiences will see a framing story about “this troupe of sideshow performers squatting in an abandoned theater and down on their luck,” Gammons says. They happen on a tattered copy of “Comedy of Errors” and decide it might be their turnaround show.
“The world of the play seemed to support it, the language seemed to support it, the physicality of the play seemed to support it,” the director says.
As actor Richard Snee says, the framing story is a way “to turn the prism a little bit and see how the light breaks.”
Gammons’s productions always have a strong visual element, from the expressionistic house in ASP’s “Medea,” which split apart to mirror the destruction of her family, to the trash-heaped living room and grotesque fat suit that surrounded actor John Kuntz in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Whale.” For “Comedy of Errors,” Gammons is handling the scenic design himself as he sometimes does, turning the school venue into that abandoned theater. The sideshow troupe will be warming up as audiences arrive, practicing tightrope walking and juggling — the details are still being worked out, based on the skill levels of Gammons’s cast, which includes ASP company members Snee, Sarah Newhouse, Omar Robinson, and Jesse Hinson.
And, apparently not satisfied with the number of twins in Shakespeare’s play, Gammons has added a pair of fake ones in his framing story.
The failing vaudeville troupe apparently lost a lot of its star performers, notably its conjoined twins. So Newhouse and Snee, as the leaders of the troupe, have yoked themselves together to fill in. By now they’ve grown accustomed to the act and remain attached for the Shakespeare performance.
“It’s good that we like each other,” Newhouse says. She and Snee have worked together in all three parts of “The Norman Conquests” at Gloucester Stage, in “Richard III” for ASP, and in “Shear Madness.”
But “we are not wearing a uni-suit,” she says. “We are not trying to sell it.”
“Selling it” would be difficult because of their different ages, appearances, and genders, Snee notes. “We’re not a very good sideshow troupe,” he says wryly.
Gammons decided this isn’t even the sideshow troupe’s performance of “Comedy of Errors,” but only a rehearsal. So be alert for comic Easter eggs such as wrong props — a plunger for a sword, say, or a banana for a gun — as the sideshow performers make do with what’s at hand. It’s layers within layers for the Actors’ Shakespeare Project cast.
“We tell the story Shakespeare wrote in all kinds of exciting and interesting and new ways, but we see it through this other lens that brings out a lot of the images and themes that are present in the text,” Gammons says.
Familiar Shakespearean motifs already emerging in this very early work, Gammons says, include twins and twinning, families that are separated and need to be reunited, and especially the question of identity. “Is it what people see, or the other deeper aspects of our identity? The notion of that frame in which you can see multiple identities was really interesting to me.”
To that end, Gammons’s casting is intentionally mixed up as well. Some actors play dual roles and both genders. Newhouse plays Solinus and Adriana, and Snee keeps his white goatee while playing Egeon and Luciana. And the actors playing Shakespeare’s two sets of identical twins in the play look nothing alike — only costume and makeup identify them as twins. So you’ve got the fake conjoined twins playing characters who aren’t twins despite being connected at the waist, while actors who don’t look at all alike play Shakespeare’s two sets of identical twins.
Gammons swears it will all make sense when you see it.
“I think Shakespeare’s intention is that the audience knows exactly who’s who and can tell them apart perfectly,” Gammons says. “The pleasure of watching the confusion that the characters within the play experience is that we know what’s going on. We’re not confused.”
And there’s more. “We’re going to be using makeup,” he says mildly, “in keeping with that notion you can put on your face and yet be mistaken for someone else.”
The actors will help costume designer Gail Buckley to fashion their individual mask-like clown faces. And for those who find clowns creepy and menacing, Gammons says you’re right on track.
“It’s often seen as such a light and frivolous comedy, but there’s a lot of darkness in the play, and I like that.”
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.