A bunny upstaged the Bard as Ron Jenkins prepared to direct his first professional Shakespeare play next week.
"For me it always comes back to Bugs Bunny," says the former Winnipegger, returning to helm The Comedy of Errors for Shakespeare in the Ruins. "You go, 'What would Bugs do?'"
Jenkins, who lives in Edmonton but is still in demand here, waxes poetic about the good old childhood days when his favourite Saturdays involved watching The Bugs Bunny Show and eating spaghetti for supper before plunking himself back in front of the television for Hockey Night in Canada. Later, he dated a girl who professed that Daffy Duck was her favourite actor. When it comes to presenting comedy onstage, the carrot Jenkins has chased belongs to a certain wascally wabbit.
"With every play... you use things that have influenced you, like Bugs Bunny," he says during an interview this week. "You will see those influences in the play, in those cartoon chase sequences."
Jenkins also has a fondness for Merchant-Ivory films like A Room With a View, The Remains of the Day as well as the musical Les Misérables, so he chose to set The Comedy of Errors in the 1830s. It was a time when society attempted to be civilized but servants were still being beaten.
A fledgling playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote The Comedy of Errors in 1594. He lifted the plot, the story of separated twins, from Menaechmi by Roman playwright Plautus, who in turn had based it on a Greek story. The Bard goosed the plot by doubling down on the number of identical twins -- he had twins of his own -- and ramping up the stakes by adding a life that hangs in the balance.
So Shakespeare wrote about two sets of long-lost twins, with the same names to bump up the confusion and mistaken identities. Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus both have servants named Dromio, who are also twins. They all end up in Ephesus at the same time. Throughout Shakespeare's shortest play, the Ephesians -- including Antipholus of Ephesus's wife, Adriana -- mistake the two sets of brothers for each other.
Mayhem, as they say, ensues.
The farce was an immediate hit. The first performance took place Dec. 28, 1594 at the upscale Grey's Inn and according to reports it was a holiday hoot. Just about from that day on, playwrights, TV scribes and screenwriters have stolen, borrowed or re-purposed the plot for everything from the 1938 Rodgers and Hart musical The Boys of Syracuse to the Hollywood movies Parent Trap and Twins.
It is said you can't do The Comedy of Errors without having at least one pair of twin actors. For Jenkins' SIR debut, he had to cast without even one, although his Syracuse- and Epheseus-based Antipholuses look identical because Winnipeg actor Toby Hughes portrays them both. Jenkins opted to have Kevin Klassen portray Dromio of Syracuse and Tom Keenan play Dromio of Epheseus.
Presenting a farce promenade style in the St. Norbert Trappist Monastery ruins demands some deft directing, as it typically requires lots of doors and characters just missing bumping into each other.
"What Shakespeare wrote is absolutely hilarious; I just had to figure out how to tell it at the ruins," says Jenkins, the former artistic director of Edmonton's Workshop West. "It's been tricky making sure that the story is not lost in the moving of the lawn chairs."
Hughes' challenge, meanwhile, is making sure he plays the right character traits with each Antipholus. One is a stranger who doesn't know anyone in Epheseus, while the other knows everyone. When it came to characterization, it was suggested he think of Basil Fawlty, the neurotic hotelier played by John Cleese on the 1970s BBC comedy series Fawlty Towers.
"Basil is very sure of himself and sees himself holding a lot of authority and status, but is constantly being undermined by everyone around him," says Hughes, whose research included a fix of Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton movies. "Dromio is very much Manuel," he adds, referring to Fawlty's hapless Spanish bellman.
"Antipholus is not a Bugs Bunny. He's more Yosemite Sam, the one who is constantly being subverted."
The Comedy of Errors is not typical Shakespeare. The poetry is much less refined and there is no real subtext. It's all about giving the audience a good time and that means a healthy serving of raunch.
"In the 1500s, fart jokes were just as popular as they are now," says Hughes, a SIR regular who had a busy 2013-14 season, including a starring role in The Valley at Prairie Theatre Exchange. "A lot of Shakespeare's comedy was written for the groundlings, the people who would stand on the floor of the Globe Theatre. This is a play really geared to puns and misunderstandings and base, simple comedy.
"There are still beautiful speeches in the play. The two sisters, Adriana and Luciana, have some great discussions that hint at what Shakespeare will get to later in his career."