William Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” may not be as widely known as “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet,” but even his lesser-known plays have still been performed over and over again. Thus, many productions will play with concepts to make theirs stand out. This is what San Francisco theater company Theater of Others attempted to do by setting the play in India. Its attempt fell flat, however, with a production that didn’t blend into its cultural setting and was full of other technical errors that distracted from the actual content.
Theater of Others sets out to bring diversity into classic plays. Its most recent production is directed by Lijesh Krishnan and is playing at the Kelly Cullen Community Auditorium through Oct. 21. “The Comedy of Errors” follows two sets of twins who were separated at birth and depicts the chaos of mistaken identity that ensues when they are finally in the same city. Theater of Others set Shakespeare’s play in India and selected a cast with about half the actors being people of color.
Changing the setting is a common conceptual tweak for productions of Shakespeare. It is often one of the first things to be changed in order to make a production different in some way. A setting change can either be extremely effective or completely fall flat; the difference lies in how much the director integrates the story into the setting. Productions that merely put the characters in telling costumes and create an overt set design without creating a bridge between the script and the concept change are the ones that fall flat. Unfortunately, this staging of “The Comedy of Errors” is one of these types of productions.
If it weren’t for the traditional Indian outfits worn by the characters, it would be easy to forget where the characters were supposed to be located. There were a couple scenes in which characters danced to Indian music, but these scenes did not advance the plot in any way and, instead, dragged it out unnecessarily. The setting was an interesting idea, but was not fully formed, and this was strikingly evident.
Another element that was not fully formed was a strong grasp of the humor in the play. This production couldn’t figure out which style of humor it wanted to enact. “The Comedy of Errors” is one of Shakespeare’s most farcical plays, and Theater of Others accomplished this tone at times — its use of physical comedy was especially notable. However, there were many instances of the comedy becoming too silly, surpassing the farcical element. It was unclear if this was intentional, but regardless, the inconsistency was noticeable and distracting.
Despite these foundational issues, the play did exhibit some strengths, all of which came down to the actors. The production did an exceptional job at background acting. When there are so many characters — with many scenes utilizing multiple characters at once — it is vital to have the characters in the background not only stay in character, but continue to move the plot forward. All of these actors excelled at this, especially Jourdán Olivier-Verdé, who played Antipholus of Syracuse and was notable for drawing attention to his acting when he wasn’t speaking.
Furthermore, each of the actors had an incredible grasp of the language. Anyone who has read or seen Shakespeare knows that his writing is not easy — in fact, it’s known for the complex quality of his words. Not everyone who performs Shakespeare is able to exhibit a kind of mastery in reciting these lines, but each actor in this production was able to do just that. The words seemed to roll off their tongues, and they utilized tone in ways that made it entirely possible to follow along with the convoluted plot. It’s a skill not often acknowledged, but one vital for the fluidity of Shakespeare’s plots.
Theater of Others is full of talented actors who clearly have an enthusiastic passion for performing classic stories in new and interesting ways. The enthusiasm is commendable, but more structure and consistency is needed to accomplish a successful retelling of a story that’s already been told a million times over. If Theater of Others focuses less on trying to make a different production and more on the strengths of its actors, its next play has the potential to be a truly memorable production, regardless of how many times it has already been told.