Wacky sound effects and characters being yanked offstage with a cane may not be the first thing folks think about when it comes to Shakespearean comedy, but for director Aubrey Caldwell Davis, it makes perfect sense.
The Comedy of Errors presents plenty of crazy scenarios of mistaken identity and moments where servants are literally slapped silly, so why not do a vaudeville spin on the classic farce? The idea came to Caldwell Davis, a guest director at Firestone High School, at the spur of the moment, just before she read the script for the new musical Tuning In at the University of Akron, which is full of old vaudeville characters.
You could say Caldwell Davis has been living vaudeville recently, after playing former Broadway dancer Millicent Monahan in August in Tuning In, an homage to the golden age of radio.
The Comedy of Errors will run 7:30 tonight through Saturday at the Firestone Theatre, 333 Rampart Ave., Akron.
After setting the vaudeville scene for the Firestone actors, she asked them to research and read about the era and come up with their own ideas. During group work, ideas began to flow organically, she said.
“I wanted to make this place a very wild and eclectic place of vaudeville performers,” she said of the Ephesus setting. The idea is set with an opening musical number and carries through for the whole play.
In the adapted script, Caldwell Davis has taken a long monologue by Adriana and turned it into a tune with standard vaudeville chord progressions for actress Cait McNeal to sing, complete with lyrics in rhyme as well as backup singers and dancers.
Caldwell Davis has arranged two musical numbers, which student Brandon Kline choreographed. The cast of 12 includes singers as well as kids playing the washboard, bass drum, piano, ukuleles, banjo and kazoo. Kline uses his tap shoes to provide rhythm.
The director, an Ashland University theater graduate who received her M.F.A. from Asolo Conservatory at Florida State University, worked in TV and film in Los Angeles and taught at the Tex Arts Academy in Austin before coming back to Ohio. She’s an adjunct theater professor at the University of Akron who does acting, directing and teaching locally after not having performed on stage for 11 years.
“I’ve been working more here than I ever did in L.A.,” Caldwell Davis said in an interview Sept. 25 at Firestone High School.
The Comedy of Errors is Caldwell Davis’ third local directorial job, coming after The Merchant of Venice and A Flea in Her Ear at the University of Akron. She first worked with Firestone theater director Mark Zimmerman last year as a vocal coach for the school’s production of Spamalot.
The show has plenty of slapstick comedy, which the students researched by studying the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin and more.
“All the elements are there but you are like a puzzle piece right now. … The pieces are real close, and if you just scoot them in, they’ll fit together,” she told the cast.
At rehearsal, Caldwell Davis asked Kline to show the cast how to do a little hip bump while dancing to McNeal’s song, in which Adriana talks about how her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, has gone mad.
“I need to see you tell the story and embody those words. I need you to ham it up, girl,” Caldwell Davis told McNeal. “Take control of the stage — it’s your moment.”
Zimmerman said he usually brings a guest director in once a year to the Firestone theater program to offer students a different directorial style and approach to the material. He knew he wanted to do a Shakespearean comedy, and his only prerequisite was that the theater not repeat any shows in his 19th year at the helm.
It promises to be a big year at Firestone Theatre, including the Motown-flavored Dreamgirls Nov. 20-23 and the biggest splash: Firestone will be a pilot school for the Disney musical Mary Poppins March 19-22. The Akron School of the Arts, housed at Firestone, will be the third school in the nation to present the musical.
“They’re trying to take a big show and make it work for high schools,” Zimmerman said of Disney. “They’ll continue to massage the script until they think it’s ready.”
He said Mary Poppins is on his short list of shows that he would have dropped anything to do. The timing is perfect, considering the movie’s 50th anniversary will be in 2014.
Firestone will be the first school in Ohio to pilot the musical, and co-producers Disney and Cameron Mackintosh want feedback about Firestone’s experience mounting the show.
According to Zimmerman, the show’s flying will be easy, with the help of a licensed flying company.
“What’s keeping me awake at night is the magic,” including Mary going up the staircase banister backward and certain set pieces and characters disappearing in a poof, he said.
Special events tied to the performances will include a fish and chips dinner and High Tea with Mary Poppins. See this column for more details in coming months.
Second-stage performances at the Firestone Theatre this season will be the improv troupe frys w/ tht? Oct. 29, the 24-Hour Theatre Project Nov. 8, the student rock show StoneStock Dec. 6, the One-Act Play Festival Jan. 9, the Spring Dance Concert April 4-5 and a special performance of Dear Gabby: The Confessions of an Over-Achiever, date TBA.
Firestone students also will perform Schoolhouse Rock Live, Jr. Nov. 10 at the Akron Civic Theatre, and the Frisch Marionette Company of Cincinnati will offer daytime performances of The Wizard of Oz for youngsters at Firestone May 22.
Cost for The Comedy of Errors is $5 in advance or $8 at the door. VIP tickets cost $13. Call 330-873-3408 for more information.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.