London’s all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller, is making its University Musical Society debut April 1-3 with seven productions of two of the Bard’s plays, Richard III and The Comedy of Errors. Ann Arbor is one of only three US stops on Propeller’s international tour this year. The company, formed in 1997, is in some ways very traditional, their roster mimicking one of the most distinguishing features of the theatrical troupes of Shakespeare’s days, who were not allowed to employ women on the stage. Propeller also rigorously relies on the original texts, unlike some modern productions that twist text, plot and even switch genders, distorting Shakespeare apparently so they can claim to have modernized him—the most recent film version of The Tempest being a good…well, not so good, example. Propeller, by contrast, manages to be highly inventive, innovative and modern, while still serving and respecting the plays and their audiences. The company’s Artistic Director, Edward Hall, says, “We look for as many ways as possible to inform the physical life of the production with the poetry of the text, and we give as much control as possible to the actor in the telling of the story.”
Pairing Richard III, Shakespeare’s second longest play (only Hamlet is longer) with The Comedy of Errors, his shortest, seems at first glance unexpected; a bloody and violent historical drama, the last in his series about the War of the Roses, with a classic farce revolving around two pairs of twins and the inevitable hilarious mistaken identities which ensue. As Hall says, “One comedy and one tragedy. But which is which?”
Both are early Shakespeare, but the Bard had clearly already hit his stride by the time he wrote them, and the plays continue to be among his most popular and most frequently produced. Although he was working, in the case of Richard III, with historical figures and events with which his audiences were very familiar, but have long faded in importance for us; and while The Comedy of Errors is set in motion by a highly improbable series of events, Shakespeare’s overriding humanity, deep psychological insight, and unparalleled sense for both high tragedy and earthy comedy (sometimes in the same scene) not to mention his magnificent language, make the plays, by definition, universal.
Hall says about Propeller’s productions, “We don’t want to make the plays ‘accessible’, as this implies they need ‘dumbing down’ in order to be understood, which they don’t.”
All performances (7:30pm Friday, 2pm and 7:30pm
Saturday and Sunday) take place at the U of M’s Power
Center, 121 Fletcher St. $20-$60. 734-763-3333. Tickets www.ums.org.