July 26--Kevin Asselin played Antipholus of Syracuse in director William Brown's 2006 Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival production of "The Comedy of Errors."
Now, as director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame's Young Company production of Shakespeare's shortest and least-regarded comedy, Asselin acknowledges he's drawing on Brown's brilliant production, which elevated the play far above its customary cast-off status in the canon.
"The Comedy of Errors" usually gets played as farce that emphasizes its physical, slapstick comedy elements, but Brown and his cast made it a whole play about the human beings caught in its absurd world of mistaken identities, and that's what Asselin wants to get from his student cast.
"I think (Brown) really landed on the key themes in the show," Asselin says. "His approach has affected me in a good way for working with these young actors to let the truth of the language come out so that the comedy will play itself rather than placing any sort of comedic device on top of it. ... Hopefully, the comedy will come out in their reality rather than turning to the audience to play it as a gag."
"The Comedy of Errors" dates from between 1589 and 1594 and is based on the Roman plays "The Brothers Menaechmus" and "Antipholus."
Where "The Brothers Menaechmus" concerned only one set of twins, Shakespeare adds a second set. In Act I, Antipholus of Syracuse and his slave, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus in search of their brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and his slave, Dromio of Ephesus. Throughout the play, the Ephesians mistake the two sets of brothers for each other, including Antipholus of Ephesus' wife, Adriana.
Shakespeare further complicates matters by adding the Antipholus brothers' father, Egeon, who also is in Ephesus, where he is sentenced to death in the play's first scene by Solinus, the duke of Ephesus.
"Egeon says he is like a drop of water in the ocean that seeks another drop," Asselin says. "That's a great line. There's some real human issues at hand. ... I feel like the bigger challenge and the better educational choice is to find the existence of true humanity in these characters, and that lies in the themes that Shakespeare has given us of mistaken identity, definition of identity, being a stranger in a foreign land and loss."
The Young Company consists of about 20 students who audition each year to take classes, produce their own play that they perform in area parks, and be cast and crew members for the main stage production, which is "Richard III" this year.
This year's troupe includes students from Notre Dame; Oklahoma City University, where Asselin teaches; and DePauw University.
He has directed each of The Young Company's productions since it added a production of its own in 2006. Early productions attempted to link The Young Company's production with the professional company's mainstage production -- Thomas Middleton's "The Witch" in conjunction with the 2008 main stage production of "Macbeth," for instance.
But with 2010's production of "The Taming of the Shrew," The Young Company made a deliberate switch to Shakespeare's works.
"Whether we chose a comedy or a drama, we felt it important to stick with Shakespeare's language so that we were focusing on verse-speaking skills and character and language," Asselin says. "I felt the overriding theme should be guiding these students to develop their acting skills."
For The Young Company's production of "The Comedy of Errors," Asselin has set the play on Long Island in 1963.
"The characters are a bit more colorful in terms of costuming and accent," he says. "Hearing Shakespeare's language with a Long Island accent can be fun. I'm already enforcing that you don't have to play up the Mafioso Long Island accent. Make it part of the character, and the reality will come through."
Music played an important role in 2010's "The Taming of the Shrew," 2011's "As You Like It" and 2012's "Midsummer Night's Dream," and it does again with "The Comedy of Errors."
This year, Asselin hired one of his former Oklahoma City University students, Davis Good, to write arrangements of such early- and mid-'60s songs as Betty Everett's "It's in His Kiss," The Strangeloves' "I Want Candy," Marty Robbins' "El Paso" and Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs' "Sugar Shack."
"Hopefully, the audience will get pulled into that era with the music," Asselin says.
For practical reasons, Asselin usually sets The Young Company's production in roughly contemporary times. For one thing, it makes costuming easier for Shakespeare at Notre Dame's costume shop, and Long Island in 1963, Asselin says, makes it easy to distinguish between the younger and older generations with their costumes.
He also has to find a way to make the set evocative of the setting and portable. For "The Comedy of Errors," he and scenic designer Matthew McCarren studied photos of street scenes from Long Island in the early 1960s.
"A lot of the images we researched were of alleys that had clotheslines stretched across them," Asselin says. "We're simulating a street by using some park benches and trash cans and stringing clotheslines across the playing space. ... We're making the costumes reinforce the idea of an urban landscape."
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