116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Both of Riverside Theatre’s free Shakespeare in the Park offerings this summer involve mistaken identities and families torn asunder and flung to foreign lands, whirling their way toward unexpected endings.
That’s where the similarities end.
Whereas “The Winter’s Tale,” staged in July, began with tragedies in the first half, then morphed into hilarity and a magical ending in the second half, “The Comedy of Errors” is funny all the way through.
The action unfolds Aug. 13 to 22 on the Festival Stage in Iowa City’s Lower City Park.
But don’t expect the merry band of actors to transport you to Elizabethan England with neck ruffs and breeches. This comedy do-si-dos to 1960s-’70s Nashville, with rhinestone cowboys and girls.
What: Shakespeare in the Park
Where: Riverside Theatre’s Festival Stage, Lower City Park, 200 Park Rd., Iowa City
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 13 to 15 to 19 to 22
Admission: Free, no ticket needed
Extras: Seating is first-come, masks not required, socially distanced section available; lawn activities and food trucks at 6:30 p.m.
That gives the cast “a lot of playful possibilities,” said guest director Angie Toomsen, artistic director at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
The plot, the cities and names stay the same, however.
Two sets of identical twins from Syracuse — a merchant’s sons and the twin boys who serve them — are separated by a shipwreck. To make matters more interesting, the merchant’s sons are both named Antipholus and the servants are both named Dromio.
One Antipholus and Dromio return to their home in Syracuse with the merchant, and the other Antipholus and Dromio wash ashore in Ephesus with the merchant’s wife.
All spend their days and years yearning and looking for each other, until 23 years later, the Syracuseans travel to Ephesus on their quest, setting into motion a madcap series of mistaken identity scenarios.
The drama is heightened by a travel ban between the two Mediterranean cities — Syracuse on today’s island of Sicily and Ephesus on today’s western shore of Turkey. Upon entering Ephesus, merchant Egeon is arrested and sentenced to death for crossing this line. To further roil the turmoil, add in some simmering women and a stolen gold chain.
“This setup is perfect for a series of mistaken identity and hilarious moments where one twin encounters the other twin’s servant and they mistake (each other) for the friend they’ve grown up with,” Toomsen said. “One twin’s wife believes the stranger in town is her husband, but he’s behaving in a way that confirms for her all of her insecurities, revealing a marital fragility.
“And it just kind of snowballs into a really heightened, dramatic and very funny situation — but then we get some resolution to it when a surprise emerges that makes sense of it all.”
But why give it a late ’60s/early ’70s Nashville twist — or any twist at all?
“There is something so poetic and archetypal and universal about Shakespeare, thematically and structurally,” Toomsen said. “It allows for wild creativity and interpretations because it's so structurally tethered. You've always got this really strong foundation dramatically, keeping your feet on the ground. Because of that, it unleashes so much creative potential, and that’s why it’s attractive” to re-imagine the setting.
"When we direct Shakespeare or reinterpret Shakespeare, whether we're playwrights or not, we get to become an inventor and we get to be as wildly creative as we should be at all times. There are really no rules, and there's something really fun about that, because it allows us to create a universe that hasn't really existed before — ideally without getting too far astray, because the text and the story are so clear and well structured.“
It’s also a chance to really ponder the parallels between the 17th and 20th centuries.
“As we were considering what might Ephesus be for us — what world and what universe would best unleash our creativity with this cast and reveal the story in an exciting new way for us both visually and from a performance standpoint,” Toomsen said, “we started thinking about Nashville as sort of the Vegas of country music and the place where, especially at that time, aspiring musicians would come and land from all corners of the country — and even the world — and attempt to make their mark.
“It felt like a really compelling parallel for the Syracuseans who are plugged into this world that they're really not supposed to be in legally. But it's a place that also feels very foreign to them, which would have been true as Shakespeare wrote these cities. Ephesus and Syracuse would have felt like very different cultures,” she said.
That opened the door for the Riverside troupe’s creative license, complete with country music, country star references and some hip-to-be-square dancing across the stage.
Country music also pulsed through Toomsen’s childhood.
“This is pretty natural for me,” she said, since her father played in a country band. “I spent many evenings and weekends in Legion Halls and small town fairs across Iowa. I associate so much of that era of country music with my dad and my family. Music has continued to be a really common factor for my family. My brother has a band, and we rarely have a family gathering where the guitars don't come out.”
She has especially enjoyed the research aspects of the theatrical move to Nashville.
“It's just been really nostalgic for me to dig into this era and to dive even farther than I ever did, to learn more than I ever did at the time,” she said.
She grew up on television’s “Hee Haw,” but this time around, watched the entire Ken Burns documentary, “Country Music in America,” and checked out storytelling podcasts.
Getting right to the heart of the matter, she and a cast member even traveled to Nashville in June, checking out the Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as “all the famous little boot and hat shops,” she said.
“We really dove in, and it was very fun.”
It’s all in the name of making connections.
“Country songs are all about storytelling,” Toomsen said. “They're all about life and love and loss, and the highest highs and lowest lows — big drama. Country music and Shakespearean comedy are both very accessible and there’s really rich crossroads between them. We're finding that so many of the passages in this play feel like country songs, and we're having a really great time filtering the story and the Shakespearean text through this concept.”
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