The Comedy of Errors @ Texas State, San Marcos, Texas, USA, 2015Adaptation

  • Michael Saenger

The Comedy of Errors / La comedia de las equivocaciones: A Bilingual Adaptation, edited by David Navarro and Joe Falocco, and directed by Joe Falocco.

Reviewed by Michael Saenger, Southwestern University

Courtezan and Antipholus

Jesús Valle as the Courtesan and Julio Mella as Antipholus of Syracuse. Photo by Denise Cathey.

Language seems like one of the least interesting aspects of theater. Most of us are used to attending performances that use the predominant language of their audience (with occasional borrowings and such), so audiences tend to focus on everything else: character, drama, spectacle, setting, concept. But the reality is, especially with Shakespeare, the language of the plays is not the language that we speak. That gap has normally been tackled with respectful humility: we should suck it up and learn to hear that older kind of English.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but Shakespeare need not always be approached so carefully, and the reality is that we live in a blended world, where languages overlap and mix frequently. In Texas, one often hears “Spanglish”, which is a kind of moving mix between Spanish and English. Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s plays that seems, and is, very funny while playing with some fundamental and very serious issues, so it is the perfect vehicle for this bilingual production.

The opening scene sets the stage for playful and serious theater. Aegeon is the forlorn father searching for his two identical twins, both named Antipholus and both played marvelously by Julio Mella, and their two identical twin slaves, both played with energetic wit by Eva McQuade (stunt doubles permitted a final scene where all Antipholi and Dromios are onstage at once). Aegeon begins the play by delivering a long series of monologues narrating his struggles at sea; in this production, Joe Falocco (the director, who also played Aegeon) handled the Shakespearean text while his speeches were translated by Jesús Valle into Spanish for the the benefit of a rather Cuban-seeming leader of an enemy of the United States, played by Edgar Gálvez. That setup neatly accounts for the two languages that pervade the rest of the play–one set of identical twins spoke mostly English, the other mostly Spanish, and the natives of the play’s locale, Ephesus, also spoke Spanish. Shakespeare’s play depends upon two inimical cities, Syracuse and Ephesus, which house two identical twins, and Aegeon is caught in the crossfire. What made this adaptation so brilliant, however, is that Jesus Valle’s translating soldier became increasingly sarcastic and mocking in the opening scene, rendering Aegeon’s overblown melodrama into direct, colloquial and comically brief Spanish summaries. You are better off not hearing the English, he seemed to imply.

One of the basic principles of the play is to mock the excessive seriousness with which people can take their names, their houses, their gold and their words, so this insertion of linguistic humor makes perfect sense. And Shakespeare’s plays often have a “where in the world are we?” quality (formally called “anatopicality”), which the linguistic mix only accentuated. The actors seemed to be alluding to Cuba, while calling each other “pendejo” (which is a favorite Mexican insult), and the script put them in Ephesus (now Turkey). But that all jibes with the original play, which feels very much like London even it plays with our sense of where we are.

There were a variety of energetic and skilled performances in this production, but especially notable are the graceful performance of Julio Mella, as both the Spanish-speaking Antipholus of Ephesus as well as his English-speaking and much more flexible Syracusan twin, and Eva McQuade as both Dromios.  The performance in general was quick and hilarious, and McQuade seemed perfectly at home in both languages.  Because her characters are both comically confused, she performed in Shakespearean English, fluent Spanish, as well as fake Spanish and halting English.  That’s no mean feat, and she always did it with precise comic intent. Daniel Domenech was suave and serious as Angelo, Brianda Carrasco was powerful and dramatic as Adriana, and Jesus Valle complemented his gifted translator with an extravagantly seductive drag Courtesan.

Underneath the surface, serious issues were hinted at.  The absurd enmity between the adverse towns of Shakespeare’s play does indeed resemble American foreign policy in Latin America, and Spanglish in Texas does often operate as a subversive mode, a way of being heard differently by different audiences. This was not a production that talked down to either language; there was no cultural stereotyping, a feature which is unfortunately common among such cross-linguistic performances.  Instead, it relied on the unruly energy of the play itself, with some elaboration that adapted that energy into our own multilingual world. As such it was fresh and successful, and we need more performances like it.

Michael Saenger

Author: Michael Saenger

Michael Saenger is Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University in Texas. He is the author of two books, The Commodification of Textual Engagements in the English Renaissance (Ashgate, 2006), and Shakespeare and the French Borders of English (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and editor of Interlinguicity, Internationality and Shakespeare (McGill-Queen's UP, 2014), and has recently published articles in Shakespeare Survey and English Text Construction. Teaching and research have been his passion for some time, but he got into Shakespeare by performing plays as an actor, and he has directed and acted in a variety of plays through the years.