The Bomb-itty of Errors

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

The biggest battles in hip-hop have always been waged over turf. Turn on the radio and you’ll hear crossover juggernauts Eminem, Nelly, and Outkast talking up their hometowns (Detroit, Saint Louis, and Atlanta respectively). Gritty urban storytellers Jay-Z and Nas regularly duke it out for the crown, throne, and scepter of New York City. And Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg practically put Compton and Long Beach on the map.

But Chicago hasn’t had anyone to sing its praises since socially conscious rapper Common, who packed up his microphone and relocated to Brooklyn several years ago. All we’ve got is the crass commercialism of thuggish brutes Do or Die, a one-trick pony named Twista, who’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s fastest rapper,” and a handful of under-the-radar acts (All Natural, the Molemen) who excel at the art of not calling much attention to themselves.

Still, Chicago is becoming notable as a haven for hip-hop theater, a grassroots form that merges the rhythms of hip-hop with theatrical narrative and manages to transcend both. Not exactly a well-defined genre, it dances back and forth between crackpot experiment and marketable commodity. So the way is open for anyone and everyone, artists and audiences alike, to embrace it.

Local performer Cleetus Friedman uses the music as a platform for questioning identity and challenging the notion of what it means to be “hip-hop.” Strawdog Theatre has boarded a time machine back to hip-hop’s golden age and had a blast goofing on Run-DMC and the Fat Boys: the company’s hip-hop/bowling romp Return to the Howard Bowl spawned an even more successful hip-hop/roller-skating sequel, The Ball of Justice. And on one weekend last spring you could take in Factory Theater’s glib B-boy-culture and break-dance homage Poppin’ and Lockdown, then hop a bus the same night and catch the all-female musical Cinderella, a Hip-Hop Tale of an Illegal Alien at the Theatre Building.

Then there’s The Bomb-itty of Errors, conceived as a thesis project in 1997 by a group of seniors at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. This “add-rap-tation” of The Comedy of Errors blew the roof off in New York before settling into an extended run at the Royal George last summer. Since then the show has morphed into a cottage industry of sorts, with an MTV sketch-comedy pilot completed, a movie in the works, and plans to tour across America. Chicago can’t exactly claim ownership–though two-fifths of the piece’s brain trust was born and raised here–but by the time it concludes its return engagement in September, it will have spent more time in the Windy City than anywhere else.

Like most of Shakespeare’s works, The Comedy of Errors has been poked, prodded, squeezed, and redone endlessly over the years, most famously as the Rodgers and Hart musical The Boys From Syracuse. And of course Shakespeare’s source was a classic Plautus comedy about two sets of identical twins. Playwrights (and original performers) Jason Catalano, Jordan-Allen Dutton, Erik Weiner, and brothers Gregory and Jeffrey Qaiyum were inspired to develop the script after one of them saw the Flying Karamazov Brothers perform its high-flying adaptation of The Comedy of Errors. If you’re keeping score, that makes The Bomb-itty of Errors an adaptation of an adaptation inspired by Shakespeare’s adaptation.

But it succeeds on the basis of its originality. The Bomb-itty of Errors works both as hip-hop–in a genre where authenticity rules, it never feels forced or phony–and as visceral, unpredictable theater. And somehow at the Royal George it all added up to something even greater, creating a sharp electrical current between the actors and the audience based on the intimate space, vibrant music, and writer-performers’ familiarity with the material.

The writers have taken more than a few liberties, of course, with Shakespeare’s original–especially with the characters. A conjurer named Pinch has been transformed into a happy-go-lucky Rastafarian herbalist who attempts to cure Antipholus of Ephesus of his marital problems with a vial of elephant urine. Angelo the jeweler has become Hasidic merchant MC Hendelberg, who’s done a custom job for the same Antipholus: a solid gold steering wheel necklace (Club and all). And with four actors playing 12 parts, including female roles, each logs serious stage time depicting transparently unconvincing women in some hilariously awful drag outfits.

The script’s all over the map in its treatment of Shakespeare’s language. Sometimes it’s reverent: portions of the Bard’s original text are seamlessly inserted into the rhymes. More often it’s irreverent: a play on the word “sport” transforms the pious Aemilia into an abbess at a nunnery obsessed with professional sports. And sometimes it’s just plain ridiculous: one performer inexplicably (but deftly) rhymes “Ephesus” with “breakfas’es.” Moreover The Bomb-itty of Errors–which follows Shakespeare fairly closely over its 90 madcap minutes–occasionally exploits the flaws in the Bard’s not-so-hot script for some added hilarity. In the final act Shakespeare struggled to find some way to tie a bow on the story, which is filled with mistaken identities and long-lost relatives. The Bomb-itty of Errors replaces all that clunky exposition with a manic Keystone Kops-style chase through the streets of Ephesus, where the actors’ quick-change talents are put to the ultimate test: wigs, hats, and dresses fly on and off as two Lucianas and four Hendelbergs confront one another at various times.

Only one performer from the Royal George cast remains: Charles Anthony Burks, who joined the show during its New York run. The other four–rubber-faced Chris Edwards, fleet-footed Joe Hernandez-Kolski, Bernie Mac look-alike Ranney, and DJ Kevin Shand–don’t have the benefit of a sense of ownership of the script but are all capable performers. And in some ways a multiethnic ensemble–past productions have had nearly all-white casts–adds unforeseen dimensions to the play. One black actor and one white play each set of twins–and neither set ever seem to recognize that they don’t look alike, making this a truly color-blind production. Also, casting African-Americans underlines the theme of slavery in Shakespeare’s play.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater staging has all the creative firepower and rugged spirit of the Royal George production but lacks much of its warmth and intimacy. In last year’s show, the DJ–who provides all the backing tracks and musical interludes and trades quips with the rest of the performers–stood off to the side onstage. Here he’s pushed to a turntable rig on the theater’s second level. The seats in the Chicago Shakespeare studio are set on steep risers, an arrangement that heightens our sense of distance from the proceedings. And it’s hard to escape the feeling that this touring production isn’t as close to the show’s roots.

With this kind of fantasy, creating a world within a black-box studio is crucial. Whereas the walls of the Royal George cabaret were covered from floor to ceiling in colorful graffiti, the Chicago Shakespeare studio remains virtually untouched. The maddening addition of an unnecessary intermission–designed, it seems, only to ring up sales at the bar–really disrupts the flow of an otherwise fast and furious show. Our sense of wide-eyed wonder at the novelty of the form remains, but we feel we’re passive observers of a well-oiled, lively, battle-tested show–not active participants in its success.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.