Reinterpretation of Shakespeare is all the rage these days. Directors dress their actors in jeans and arm them with pocketknives in lieu of robes and rapiers.
In that vein, this spring there are two new takes on Shakespearean comedy appearing on stage in Philadelphia. The Arden Theatre is presenting “As You Like It,” its fourth production this season. On campus, Temple Theater has put a new twist on “Comedy of Errors” in the Tomlinson Theater.
“As You Like It” is a comedy about a young noblewoman named Rosalind and a nobleman named Orlando who have both been betrayed by their respective families.
Rosalind’s uncle, the Duke Frederick, stole her father’s land and banished him from the realm to the Forest of Arden. Rosalind remains on her uncle’s estate after her father’s banishment, until he grows suspicious and banishes her as well. She flees the realm disguised as a man.
Orlando, on the other hand, is neglected in his upbringing by his brother Oliver. When their father died, the inheritance went to Oliver with the stipulation that he is to provide for Orlando’s education. Oliver does not do this, and instead gives Orlando a share in the inheritance if he will leave and not return.
The characters converge in the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind’s father and his retainers live in idyllic exile. The rest of the play takes place in this forest, where Rosalind still disguised as a man meets Orlando. She does not reveal her identity to him; instead she offers (as a man) to instruct him in the ways of love.
“As You Like It” is a masterpiece of comedy, and the production at the Arden Theatre does it immense justice. The play is not staged in Elizabethan times and is instead set “some time between the early 1600s and last Thursday” according to the program, but by the costumes appears to be the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Picnickers in the Forest of Arden carry coolers, and pocketknives have replaced swords. The Bard’s intent is not altered by this change in setting, however; the original Shakespearean dialogue remains in place.
“Comedy of Errors,” widely believed to be Shakespeare’s first play, is a story of the grand confusion caused by estranged twin brothers who have unexpectedly ended up in the same city.
The brothers, both named Antipholus, each have a servant name Dromio. The two Dromios are estranged twin brothers. The Antipholus who resides in the town appears as a shady character. He has dealings with many disreputable people in the town; he also has a favored prostitute to whom he promises jewelry intended for his wife, Adriana.
When his brother appears in the town, Adriana mistakes him for the Antipholus from the town. After scolding him for not being on time, she takes him into her house and locks the gates. When her husband arrives at home, he is flustered to find his own home barred to him.
In the meantime, the two Dromios run errands for their masters, and of course, they go off on an errand for one master and return to the other, usually resulting in a beating for the confused servant.
Eventually, as things become more confused, the twins are accused of things their other half has done, and their denials, which are perfect truth to themselves, seem blatant lies to the town’s denizens. The out-of-town Antipholus has the added misfortune of not even having a clue as to who these denizens are!
Director Madi Distefano, a third year master of fine arts candidate at Temple, has set her production of “Comedy of Errors” in a seventies cartoon setting. Reminiscent of Fat Albert, the curved houses and purple afros create the perfect backdrop for the chaos of the play.
The characters do acrobatics and run in slow motion to a soundtrack of disco and funk. The dialogue shies away from the Elizabethan at times, but does not lose Shakespeare’s vision or intent.
Shakespeare is often adapted to modern themes, and often with disastrous results. (Hey, we all saw Lionardo DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet.) However, both the Arden and Temple Theatres have shown how to do it right.
“As You Like It” will be playing at the Arden Theatre through April 14. https://www.ardentheater.org
“Comedy Of Errors” will be playing at the Tomlinson Theater through April 6. https://www.temple.edu/theater/
Brian White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org