What passes for a plot in William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is so damn silly that actors performing in the show have been known to forget it. To simplify: two sets of identical twins, masters named Antipholus and servants named Dromio, the payment of a ransom, and the lowbrow fun of endless mistaken identity to entertain the groundlings.
It’s the one Shakespeare play that can be spoken of in the same breath with Gilligan’s Island and Dumb and Dumber. The appeal to actors and directors is to see what gold can be extracted from this dross, or, to change metaphors, what improvisation and invention can be built on such a wobbly foundation. Answer: plenty.
Mind over platter: Kheedim Oh puts the needle to Bomb-itty’s music. Michael Davis photo.
Enter rap music, more specifically hip-hop, one of the most dynamic and assertive streams in American popular culture of the last two decades. Almost 10 years ago a bunch of New York University graduate students led by Jordan Allen-Dutton experimented with a rap version of Shakespeare, which went on to off-Broadway in 2001 as The Bomb-itty of Errors. It’s been performed around the world, usually with the same director, Andy Goldberg, whose handiwork is on display at the current Syracuse Stage mounting. This means we’re getting the authentic version.
If not told, you could easily forget Bomb-itty’s origins in Shakespeare, and often enough you do. Before you see anything you hear the persistent jackhammer rap beat, which is sometimes low enough to let you hear the dialogue. Shoko Kambara’s set design delivers a gritty diorama redolent of urban blight. Then again, the vintage graffiti could be pre-Jean Michel Basquiat rather than of the moment.
On a platform above the action stands a slight Asian man, Kheedim Oh, a.k.a. DJ O, an experienced scratcher, whose aggressive manipulation of the turntable augments or interrupts the action. Mr. Oh does not assume a character’s name and is always himself. Given that we know he has been a disc jockey in a number of earlier productions, he becomes a kind of post-modern Olympian who knows better than the madcap hilarity he oversees.
There’s never a dull moment in Bomb-itty of Errors. Instead the moments are: cacophonic, phat, outrageous, ear-splitting, comic, groan-inducing, balletic, flat-footed, inventive, insipid and in-your-face. Four players appear as more characters than you can count. Two of them are white, Jason Babinsky and James Barry, and two are African-American, Darian Dauchan and Griffin Matthews. There’s an uh-oh moment when you first notice that Babinsky and Barry are playing the masters Antipholus while Dauchan and Matthews start out as the servants Dromio, but this turns out to be a director’s device rather than an outrage to racial sensitivity.
In default mode Babinsky and Barry are white rappers in pull-down knit caps, like Eminem, and given to pouting. Dauchan and Matthews, having more fun, wear over-the-knee shorts and oversize lids with stiff bills and the price tags still hanging. All wear headset microphones.
Rappers’ delight: From left, Darian Dauchan, Jason Babinsky, James Barry and Griffin Matthews in Syracuse Stage’s The Bomb-itty of Errors. Michael Davis photo.
The verse of rap lyrics is meant to be performed, but it is not conversational. The tight rhythm and heavy rhyme make it feel ritualized, unlike Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, with subtler rhymes that can pass for speech, even in archaic language. It’s a critical matter with the exposition, where you’re supposed to grasp the threads of the harebrained story.
One set of master and servant have left Syracuse (the ancient one, not us) and have journeyed to Ephesus where they hope to become emcees: “Yo, we’re on a mission/ Everybody listen/ We’re representing Syracuse/ And we’re never quittin’.” Trouble is, with only four players instead of a full cast, speeches/routines are often top-heavy with information and longer than comparable speeches in Comedy of Errors. With so much to remember and ramshackle costumes and props, there has to be some question if most of the audience can recall who’s the drag character Adriana and what his/her relationship is with another drag character, Luciana. Or can audiences determine why an abbess, making jokes about John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, figures crucially into the action toward the end?
All four players are, in effect, leads. The authors and director Goldberg allow each of them sustained moments in the spotlight. Jason Babinsky has some of the most fun as a Jewish businessman named M.C. Henderberg, who breakdances to “Hava Nagila.”
There is no Jewish character in Comedy of Errors, but there is a goldsmith who delivers a gold chain to the wrong twin, as Henderberg does here. Obliged to deliver many of his lines in a screaming falsetto, Griffin Matthews should be the most exhausted performer by the time he makes an entrance from the audience as a New York City cop with kinky obsessions.
Darian Dauchan dominates the action as a Rastafarian Dr. Pinch, dispensing wisdom and a whole lot more, a variation on the schoolmaster in Comedy. And James Barry as the drag character Adriana calls up the voice of the late Flip Wilson in the body of Harvey Fierstein.
The roots of Bomb-itty of Errors run much deeper than Tupac Shakur and Sean P. Diddy Combs. The fevered pace and frequency of drag roles owe much to Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company as well as the Ludlam-inspired Reduced Shakespeare Company, whose Complete Works . . . Abridged series began at West Coast renaissance fairs in the 1980s and have been playing the world ever since. Before this also was the rock version of another minor Shakespeare play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, with a score by Hair’s Galt MacDermot, which won a Tony Award in 1971, beating out Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.
Roll out the barrels: Griffin Matthews and Jason Babinsky skewer contemporary situations in Bomb-itty. Michael Davis photo.
A great difference between Bomb-itty and Two Gentlemen is that while rock has become domesticated (Bono is an admired moral leader), rap remains defiantly lewd, crude and rude. Lawlessness, “gangsta,” is part of the appeal. Although almost never revived, Two Gentlemen had broad audience appeal; Bomb-itty divides theatergoers.
On opening night many younger patrons, especially if they were in black clothes, were overwhelmed with exhilaration, perhaps from the frisson of seeing street music on a stage where King Lear and Les Liaisons Dangereuses had played. A 30ish woman laughed the entire 90 minutes, chortling lowly in the rare down minutes but shrieking with joy from the lamest gags and on up. Nearby were regular subscribers (warning to men: this is the wrong show for a jacket and tie) with pasted tolerant smiles on their faces, hoping to broaden their grasp of the pop scene, who regularly scanned their watches in hope that the thing would end.
This production runs through April 12. See Times Table for information.