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The Comedy of Errors in Ashland, Knowing Cairo in Chicago, and Sans-culottes in the Promised Land in Louisville logo
Christopher DuVal, Catherine E. Coulson, and James J. Peck
in The Comedy of Errors
(Photo © David Cooper)
Viva Las Vegas -- or, at least, a semblance thereof. Director Bill Rauch opens the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2004 season with his interpretation of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, set in the early 1960s in a very Vegas-like city. The original setting of the play is the town of Ephesus, where Antipholus and Dromio from Syracuse alight and are mistaken for their identical twin brothers, also named Antipholus and Dromio.

"We were very interested in the differences between Ephesus and the offstage world of Syracuse," says Rauch. "From the Syracusans, the strangers, there's a strong response to the community in terms of how it's ruled by money and how much sin they perceive. We took our cue from that and thought about how we could create a community that would be overwhelming to these two guys. The Vegas influence just made a lot of sense."

In addition to the updated setting, Rauch has secured permission from the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to incorporate the song "Falling in Love with Love" from the Rodgers and Hart tuner The Boys From Syracuse -- which is, of course, a musical adaptation of The Comedy of Errors. "There are four different casinos that we hit over the course of the show," says Rauch. "A singer appears in all four, singing the same song, but each appearance is thematically specific to the casino she's in. The first has a general gambling scene but the following casino has a Roman scene, the next a tropical scene, and then an Arabian scene."

Rauch is best known for his work with the Cornerstone Theatre, a community-based ensemble that often works with different populations of non-theater artists to create work that is relevant to a specific local community. "The way I look at the world and the way I look at a play is so influenced by my experiences with Cornerstone," Rauch avers. "So, when I pick up The Comedy of Errors, I see two sets of twins that look exactly alike but were raised in different cultures, and I ask how we can get as specific as possible about what those two different cultures are."

One way that he manages this is through the use of regional dialects. "One set of twins speaks with a very strong Southern accent and the other set with a contemporary East Coast dialect," says Rauch. However, the director is careful not to play into stereotypes: "Just when somebody comes on strong with the dialect and you think you know everything about him, he'll turn around and have this gorgeous speech that reveals a different part of his identity. Your jaw drops because it is so multi-dimensional."


Jane Galloway Heitz, Tasha Anne James, and Ora Jones
in Knowing Cairo
(Photo © Victoria DeIorio)
In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Huck and his friend Jim, an escaped slave, travel down the Mississippi en route to Cairo, Illinois -- the last stop on the Underground Railroad. However, due to a thick fog that engulfs the travelers, they end up missing their destination. This is the situation invoked by the title of Knowing Cairo, a play by Andrea Stolowitz that's currently running at the Victory Gardens Studio Theater in Chicago in a production from the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble.

"It's the idea of floating right past the very thing that you need or the very thing that will save you," says the show's director, Kimberly Senior. "All of the characters in the play are dealing with that."

Knowing Cairo centers on three women: a German-Jewish senior named Rose, her adult daughter Lydia, and an African-American caretaker named Winsome, whom Lydia hires to take care of her mother. "It deals with really emotional things in an unsentimental way," Senior states. "All of the characters make mistakes; they make good and bad choices. Different people are on different characters' sides when watching the play. It really engages the audience in regard to who's right and who's wrong, the ethical dilemma of it."

Rivendell's production marks the play's second mounting, following its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theater in 2003. Senior has kept close contact with Stolowitz, who has made some minimal changes and adjustments for the Chicago production. The director loves to work directly with playwrights whenever possible and says that she's committed to bringing the writer's vision to the stage as opposed to her own concept of a play.

"I feel that theater today is moving in a direction similar to the concept of the turn-of-the-century European director as auteur, where the director is actually the conceiver of the piece," she states. "I, on the other hand, am moving away from that. I tend to be attracted to plays that don't need any conceptual rendering on my part. My productions are about telling the playwright's story as clearly and dramatically as possible."


April Matthis and Tamilla Woodard in
Sans-coulottes in the Promised Land
(Photo © Harlan Taylor)
"While I was working as a nanny, one of my co-workers in the household said I should write a play about her," says Kirsten Greenidge. "Many people say this, but in her case, she was right. Her story got me thinking about what happens when the promise of America is broken."

The result is Sans-culottes in the Promised Land, receiving its world premiere in Louisville as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. The title references the working class revolutionary movement in 18th-century France. "In college, I was a history major," Greenidge explains. "When I decided to write a play about a nanny in Newton [just outside of Boston], where they are plentiful and often necessary for working class families to run smoothly, I began to try to relate the tenor of the Sans-culottes' existence to that of a specific set of working people in a wealthy area of the country. The Sans-culottes in my play all desperately need the structure of our society to change. The title is ironic; if America is indeed the Promised Land, Sans-culottes should not exist at all."

Although Greenidge hesitates to call herself a political playwright, she acknowledges that the issues she often writes about are politically inflected. "One of the reasons I write is because I like to examine situations through a historical lens," she states. "I like to ask, 'What are the historical forces that surround this story or this character or this image?' Since politics and history are linked, I would say that my work often has a political tenor to it."

Sans-culottes in the Promised Land is not autobiographical but Greenidge has drawn liberally from her own experiences in penning the script. "One of my charges used to say, 'Kirsten, if you want to write about our family, feel free to take anything you want,'" the playwright relates. "While I cannot say that this is the story of the family I worked for, I can say that while sitting in thousands of carpool lanes, waiting inside countless violin, horseback riding, dance, and art lessons, and doing an average of 12 loads of laundry a week while cooking dinner and helping with homework, I gave a lot of thought to the nanny question."

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