Fixing Shakespeare

SFCC and The Inlander’s theater critic have the audacity to edit the Bard

Tammy Marshall

Open your texts to page 45, and let’s read a passage, shall we?

“If you will jest with me, know my aspect/And fashion your demeanor to my looks/Or I will beat this method in your sconce.”

A comedic tour-de-force, surely as provocative and incisive today as the day it was written. Method in your sconce, indeed.

You can’t admit it’s dull, can you? It’s Shakespeare, and nobody messes with Shakespeare, right? It just isn’t done.

Inlander theater writer Michael Bowen has no such qualms. He’s that type of critic — the sort that thinks he can improve on Shakespeare.

Two years ago, he sought to write a version of The Comedy of Errors that the now-defunct Actor’s Repertory Theatre could perform with a mere six players. As a bonus, Bowen wanted to change enough so the average schlub — you, your high school kid, Joe Six Pack — could understand and, maybe, even enjoy it.

This week, Spokane Falls Community College performs that revised script, in all its lean splendor.

The Comedy of Errors, one of the first Shakespeare plays, established the now classic Shakespearean comedy formula (identities are mistaken; hilarity ensues.) But the bard, frankly, was still learning to properly wield his pen.

It begins with an old man — call him Mister Exposition — who sets out on a long-winded monologue to set the premise.

“It is the longest uninterrupted monologue in Shakespeare,” Bowen says. “It just goes on forever... and it’s boring as hell.”

There’s the first step to modernizing Shakespeare: Hacking out redundancies, dumping the extraneous, tweaking the obsolete. Most modern audiences can barely sit through a three-hour movie — much less a wordy play with very few orc battles.

Large swaths of the old-man opening monologue were snipped. Gone are meandering bawdy scenes where gents laboriously compare an unattractive woman to a globe. Anything, Bowen says, that a Ph.D. in Shakespeare couldn’t instantly understand had to go.

When Bowen finally capped his red pen after two to three months of evening editing, he had X’ed out a full fifth of the play.

Then came translation. Shakespeare uses “sad” to mean “of an intense focus” instead of, well, sad. People can’t laugh, Bowen and SFCC director Bill Marlowe figure, if they’re busy puzzling over words. Obsolete phrases are swapped out, but still, crucially, tied to the iambic pentameter rhythm.

A “carcanet” becomes “a necklace new.”  “Why, what an intricate impeach is this?” becomes “Why, what an intricate enigma’s this?”

Fortunately, Comedy is a Shakespeare play with less of a reliance on witty wordplay, more of a reliance on the inherent hilarity of flatulent sounds. Its humor is broad, its colors are loud, its brow is low. 

“Some of the jokes are just 400 years old,” Bowen says. “There’s nothing worse than a joke people don’t get… It’s a fart joke. Get rid of the obscure references to farting and just call it a fart joke.”

(Of course, comedic sensibilities have changed since. Back in the day, a servant being beaten was the comedy at its finest. Get it? He’s being beaten.)

With Marlowe’s help, the place and time are updated. Thus the play is set in 1968 Spokane, complete with cowboys and hippies and Market Street sets. Hearing “Antipholus of Syracuse” befuddles people, sending them reaching for their playbill. “Sir Nicholas of Hillyard Town,” however, Marlowe says, is more recognizable.

Back in Shakespeare’s time, shout-outs to places like Ephesus and Syracuse were punch lines themselves. They had reputations. So do Kennewick and Hillyard.

“I want people to come in, have a good time, laugh, walk away feeling good,” Marlowe says. “It is not a deep intellectual or emotional experience. It’s theatrical fluff.”

And that’s the goal: To take a dopey, bawdy, silly play, scrape away the obscurity and present it just as dopey, bawdy and silly today.

“We’re not serving historical accuracy,” Bowen says. “To do that is to just make Shakespeare a museum piece.”

The Comedy of Errors offers wacky misunderstandings and madcap high jinks at Spokane Falls Community College on March 4-7 and March 11-14, on Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and on Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets: $8; $6, students and seniors. Call 533-3592.

Shakespeare in the Park: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) @ Riverfront Park

Fri., Sept. 24, 6:30-9 p.m., Sat., Sept. 25, 6:30-9 p.m., Sat., Oct. 2, 2 p.m. and Sun., Oct. 3, 2 p.m.
  • or

About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...