University Theatre’s “Comedy of Errors” gives Shakespeare a colorful twist

University Theatre does ‘Comedy of Errors’ circa a 1950s beach town, complete with neon drink umbrellas and parasols.

Plywood and smeared spackle were the backdrop for a Tuesday night rehearsal in the Robinson Theater. Dressed in jeans and sneakers, actors cartwheeled, danced and unicycled across the half-finished set. Several twirled brightly-colored, opened umbrellas.

Though University Theatre’s Comedy of Errors was over a week away from opening night, the rehearsal buzzed with comic energy.

Quiet chuckles rang through the auditorium, its seats filled sparingly with production staff. “All right, folks, let’s take 10” said director Joseph Gilg, as one character made a final dive into a stage trap door. “We’ll run act one at 9:05.”

Actors scattered — neon wigs still intact, clown-like personas discarded.

Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s most ridiculous comedies. It follows two sets of twins separated at birth as they embark on a series of misadventures in the coastal town of Ephesus.

This production pushes the boundaries of “normal” Shakespeare. Every decision, onstage or backstage, has been made with the audience’s entertainment in mind. Crazy costumes, carnival-like displays of talent and a focus on collaborative creativity make University Theatre’s interpretation of Comedy of Errors unique.

As the final product comes together, the people involved are excited to see this colorful whirlwind come to life and draw plenty of laughs.

“There’s not much depth to it,” Gilg said. “There’s no big morals or any of that sort of thing.”

The play’s written in Shakespeare’s notoriously complicated verse, laced with double entendres and archaic vocabulary. Have you ever heard of a “synod”? How about a “capon”?

“It’s pretty fancy wordplay, and when you first read it on the script it’s a little hard to understand,” said Riley Mulvihill, who plays one of the confused twins, Dromio of Ephesus. This is Mulvihill’s first Shakespeare production, and he found the meter and vocabulary difficult to master.

The cast and crew have been working since the end of March to make sure that Comedy of Errors is digestible for all audiences — at least through their faces, if not always their words.

The show’s over-the-top, playful style is especially helpful in bringing the farcical humor to light. Gilg encouraged the cast to explore clowning techniques, unusual talents and packed the play with quirky side attractions.

Someone rides a unicycle. Someone else plays the ukulele. The actors acknowledge the audience with over-played double-takes and playful glances reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin.

One actor charged with learning how to juggle soon found that she didn’t have the knack. She asked Gilg if she could turn her lack of ability into a comic bit, and he enthusiastically agreed.

Now, she routinely drops the balls with great dramatic flair and lets the audience in on the joke with exaggerated facial expressions.

“Actors will come up with ideas for what their character’s doing… and we take those ideas and just kind of develop them a little further,” said Gilg.

“You can be as hammy as you want, and they’re like ‘give me more,’” said Mulvihill. “It’s just a hoot.”

Other cast members shared Mulvihill’s appreciation of this creative freedom.

“Joseph didn’t want to give us a whole lot of blocking ideas,” said Isaiah Nixon. “He wanted us to just play around with everything, just to see what will work.”

Nixon is part of Comedy of Errors’s small ensemble of street performers. This group of five actors were not originally in the script, and have no real lines or role. They’re onstage for almost the whole show, juggling and frolicking through Ephesus as the story unfolds. Occasionally, they’ll even pantomime the dialogue in the background.

“We are by far the silliest, craziest people in this cast because we really don’t have any limit as to what we do,” said Allie Murakami, another street performer. Murakami tumbles and juggles. Another street performer, freshman Connor French, performs sleight-of-hand tricks. Their varied antics bring the zany onstage world of Ephesus to life.

“Ephesus needs to be something that doesn’t look like a regular place,” said costume designer Alexandra Bonds, her hands full of lucid pink silk flowers.

Standing in Miller Theatre Complex’s large and well-lit costume shop, Bonds described the evolution of Comedy’s visual elements and designs come in.

Incidentally, Bonds is married to Gilg. They recalled discussing their vision for this show while on vacation in Brazil last year. Inspired by strolls on pristine beaches, Bonds initially envisioned Ephesus as a nostalgic 1950s beach town, complete with little drink-umbrellas and parasols.

However, Bonds had to make compromises once production meetings began.

“Everyone else was in totally different places,” she said. “Joseph was really attracted to very bright colors. He kept saying he wanted it to be bright, bright, bright.”

She shifted her focus to something different: A colorful dream-world inspired by clown costumes and traditional Elizabethan clothing.

One remnant of Bond’s original vision remains — umbrellas.

“I kept the little parasols, and the beach umbrellas… because there was just something about them,” she said. “I wanted that carefree, relaxed quality to it.”

Bonds shaped her cohesive costume design around three seemingly disconnected words: Elizabethan, surrealist, umbrella.

“All of these are not what you think they are,” Bonds said, gesturing at a wall papered with bright, detailed costume sketches. She pointed out the many clever illusions and details hidden in her playful designs.

On one drawing was a hoop skirt masquerading as a flower pot. On another, Elizabethan pumpkin breeches were sketched with pumpkin-printed fabric. Umbrellas hid in all kinds of objects: skirts, strings of lights and even swords.

On one design, a hat was designed to evoke a fried egg — Gilg’s idea, according to Bonds.

“Part of the fun of it has been that back-and-forth volleying,” Bonds said. “I’ll come up with an idea, then somebody else will build on it.”

This idea is reflected outside the costume shop, as well.

“The style has pretty much been that everybody is a contributing member to what’s going on onstage,” said Gilg.

As stage manager, Andrea Kilcoyne played a large role. She shuttles information and ideas between director and designers, and now ensures that all of the technical elements fall into place.

As opening night approaches, Kilcoyne has noticed an especially strong bond in the cast and crew. “They really just gelled and they came together as a group to put together this crazy, wonderful play,” she said. “It makes my job easier.”

After seven weeks of tireless rehearsal, experimentation and creativity, Kilcoyne and the rest of the Comedy of Errors family are ready to share their colorful world with an audience.

“I guess what I’m most looking forward to is sitting up in the back and listening to the laughter,” said Gilg. “Because I think it’s going to be really funny.”

Mulvihill echoed this sentiment with contagious excitement.

“That energy that an audience brings, and that live performance brings, I can’t wait,” Mulvihill said.

Comedy of Errors runs May 22-23, 28-30, June 5-6 at 8 p.m. and May 31 at 2 p.m. in the Robinson Theatre on campus. Tickets are free for University of Oregon students. For more information, visit the University Theatre website.

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