“Want to pop in for a peek?” Scott Bellis asks as we’re heading to the Bard on the Beach green room for a chat. And we do pop into the main-stage area, where designer Pam Johnson and her crew are working on the set for The Comedy of Errors, which Bellis is directing as the opening show for Bard this summer.
The set is unlike anything the festival has seen: a dark, looming mechanical wall of fantastical gears and levers, it almost completely obscures the view of mountains and water that audiences have gotten used to.
“I wanted to get that sense that there’s machinery working,” Bellis says. “Just a sense of stuff, things happening behind walls. Places where steam comes out.”
The set is a stunner and a big part of Bellis’s steampunk vision for one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies. As we leave the playing area and settle onto the comfy couches in the actors’ lounge, Bellis talks about his steampunk interpretation, which he first explored in a student production at Studio 58 in 2011.
“I stumbled on this idea of steampunk because, when I work Shakespeare with students, I try to find some kind of hook that appeals to their contemporary sensibilities and that will allow them to enter into a classical work,” he begins. “And I was thinking about the play as a machine and what it would be like if the characters were all fixing a big machine all the time.”
Because it’s a farce, the play is a kind of giant gearbox—and the fuel that drives it is mistaken identity. In The Comedy of Errors, two sets of identical twins—one noble, one lowborn—have been separated at birth. The nobles are called Antipholus, and their servants are named Dromio. At the beginning of the play, the Antipholus and Dromio from Syracuse arrive in Ephesus on a quest to find their lost brothers. Those brothers live in Ephesus and know nothing about their twins, so everybody gets mistaken for everybody else and clockwork chaos ensues.
Bellis says that the steampunk style, which combines Victoriana and technology in a kind of retro-futurism, suits the script because both are fantastical: “Ephesus is a place of the classical world that we don’t know much about,” he explains, “so it becomes a place of pure imagination.” There are also elements in the plot that speak to steampunk’s roots in the Victorian age and its fascination with the sinister and supernatural. “There are dark overtones to the story,” Bellis says. “There’s possession, there’s madness, there’s violence. The servants get beaten up a lot and we’re asked to accept that as part of this comic story. Working through that dramatically is a challenge we’re taking on.”
For centuries, many scholars have dismissed The Comedy of Errors as thematically superficial, but Bellis doesn’t buy that analysis. The play has been speaking to him on a different level—for 30 years.
“Comedy of Errors was actually the first Shakespeare play I was ever in,” he remembers. He appeared as Antipholus of Syracuse when he was a student at Studio 58. “That was my first encounter with Shakespeare and I was 19, so, of course, I hardly understood a thing I was saying,” Bellis recalls. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around the language; I found it really frustrating. But, underneath all that, I was fascinated by the story of these guys who go on a quest for years to try and find their missing twins. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of trying to find a missing piece of yourself—how that’s such a driving force for us, either on a conscious or subconscious level, as we go through our lives. What are we looking for? As farcical as this play is, the characters all have very strong needs, and, for the central characters, those needs are often associated with another person—trying to find another person or gain the attention of another person. Those are very, very human goals.”
Bellis points out that the characters from Syracuse, who know about their twins, “are moving forward, they’re on a quest, they’re hopeful they’re going to find what they’re looking for. But Antipholus of Ephesus lives a discontented life. He’s a prominent citizen in an unhappy marriage. An aura of discontent surrounds him—because he doesn’t know there’s something missing.”
Asked about his own aspirations for this production, the director replies, “I hope that it will be funny. I hope that it will be quirky. And I really hope that some of it will be moving. At the end, the story has a beautiful scene of reunification—which is massively unlikely and far-fetched—but I’m trying to concoct an end moment in which we see two people recognize themselves in each other. I want that to be a positive thing.”
The Comedy of Errors runs at Bard on the Beach from Thursday (June 4) to September 26.