In season opener, Colorado Shakespeare Festival flips the script
(Above: Emelie O’Hara in “Macbeth” at Sierra Repertory Theatre and Carolyn Holding in “As You Like It” at Denver Center Theatre Company)
William Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” is so timeless it needs no rewrite to get wall-to-wall laughs in the 21st century. But a few trailblazers at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival thought recently about the classic slapstick routines of Lucille Ball and Amy Poehler and wondered what would happen if, suddenly, a handful of women were at the play’s farcical forefront.
What would happen, in other words, if someone flipped the script?
This summer, Coloradans get to find out. CSF opens its Summer 2016 season with a gender-flipped “Comedy of Errors,” presenting for the first time a cast that achieves gender parity. The opening night performance takes place Saturday, June 4 at 8 p.m.
About 430 years ago, a young Shakespeare scored a commercial hit with “The Comedy of Errors.” In the farce, two pairs of male (now female) twins upset an entire city with their antic confusions, and their suspicious spouses are left to manage the fallout.
“I think ‘Comedy of Errors’ is the purest Shakespeare comedy,” says the production’s director, Geoffrey Kent. “Audiences love it. It’s funny right out of the gate. But we wondered what we could do to elevate it, to make it funny in different ways.”
Eventually, Kent and CSF Artistic Director Timothy Orr agreed to take on the challenge of casting women in the four principal roles usually reserved for men.
“We realized that by adapting the genders, we’d bring in laughs to this play that were never there before,” Kent says. “There’s a scene where Antipholus of Syracuse aggressively pursues and seduces Luciana, and it’s really fun to flip that around and watch our female protagonist chase the newly named Luciano until he submits.”
Gender reversal isn’t all that’s new in CSF’s season opener. Instead of the traditional Ancient Roman setting, the plot will unfold on a set designed to look like 1930s Paris.
“We wanted to find a setting that illuminates the themes,” Kent says. “There are recurring themes of falling in and out of love, mistaken identity, getting lost. And if you’ve ever been to Paris, you know it’s romantic and it’s rife with confusing, criss-crossing streets.”
Playing up the setting also means audiences at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre get the rare opportunity to enjoy live music inspired by the likes of Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt. They’ll even hear that most Parisian of instruments, the accordion—played, of course, by a woman.
What’s most impressive about the rare female focus in “The Comedy of Errors” is that it extends to another play later this season. Many of the female actors Kent and Orr cast will also appear in “Troilus and Cressida,” giving a new focus to the traditionally male roles of Ulysses, Aeneas and Agamemnon.
The cherry on top of the gender-equality sundae is that, by happy accident, Orr discovered recently that exactly half of the festival’s staff, designers and directors are women.
“Gender parity is a goal of a lot of Shakespeare companies across America, and without intention, we’ve achieved that simply by keeping our eyes and ears open for the best people,” Orr says. “That makes me so happy, because really, it’s about time.”