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Richmond Shakespeare brings the Bard to the ’90s

Richmond Shakespeare press art: One twin stands along one side of a door while three people drag the other twin away.
Dave Parrish
Richmond Shakespeare
Bringing the Bard into the 21st century can also give a much-needed update to Elizabethan gender norms, when women were prohibited from acting onstage.

The theater troupe updated 'The Comedy of Errors' with a contemporary twist.

The 24th Annual Richmond Shakespeare Festival concludes this weekend, after a two-month run.

At the festival, performers from the Richmond Shakespeare theater troupe get the unique opportunity to perform on the lawn of Agecroft Hall — an English Tudor-era manor that was relocated from outside of Manchester, England, in the 1920s.

“We're one of the few places in America where you can see Shakespeare with the backdrop of a building that would have been in England during his lifetime,” said Laura Purvis, Agecroft Hall’s marketing and development manager. “It’s just a beautiful experience.”

In contrast to the historic venue, Richmond Shakespeare's take on the farcical play The Comedy of Errors turns to a more recent era for inspiration: the 1990s.

The original play chronicles the accidental reunion of identical twin brothers who were separated at birth and the series of comical misunderstandings that ensue.

Through costuming and sound effects, the company’s artistic team turned the classical setting into a sitcom, inspired by television shows like Seinfeld and Friends.

Artistic Director James Ricks said the homage speaks to how timeless the play’s comedic tropes still are.

“If you look at the ’90s sitcoms, they have the same kind of stuff that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were writing,” he said.

To Ricks, the process of adapting plays to better fit modern audiences is also consistent with Shakespeare’s legacy.

“Many of Shakespeare’s stories and scenarios are borrowed from other texts, with 'The Comedy of Errors' being no exception," he said. “He borrowed [this play] from the great old Roman playwright Plautus and massaged it into something that would work for an Elizabethan audience. So, we tried to follow that tradition”.

Bringing the Bard into the 21st century can also give a much-needed update to Elizabethan gender norms.

In Shakespeare’s time, women were not permitted to publicly perform on the English stage, and male actors performed female roles. This new production subverts that, casting two actors who are women in the leading roles.

“That’s one thing about Shakespeare: He makes it pretty easy for us to play around with gender,” Ricks said.

Although these modern changes are important to the troupe, preserving the unique qualities of classic texts is still the foundation of their work.

Ricks said these canonical works have a special appreciation for the written word, which is something the modern world can lack.

“These plays are all about the language. And I think that that's something worth noting in a society that has, I think, fallen away from language,” he said.

“When you come out of the play, it takes like 10 minutes for your brain to let the language wash over you. You start to hear the rhythm of the text; you hear the beauty of the words. It's just a different kind of experience.”

Purvis said that taking a trip to the past by visiting Agecroft Hall can provide insights into modern life.

“There are so many stories to be told about the Tudor era; it is just far enough in the past that it feels distant. But it's just close enough that you find things that are just so shockingly similar,” Purvis said. “It's really a turning point in history that we have a lot of familiarity with, and you don't even think about that until you come and start looking at the history.”

Ricks also said that Shakespeare experts and novices alike can find something to enjoy in this reimagining of text.

“It's not inaccessible, it all deals with themes that are very universal,” he said. “And comedy is comedy.”

Until the show ends its run on Sunday, Richmond audiences can find new humor in jokes written more than 400 years ago.

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