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Questions and Answers with Director Vincent J. Cardinal

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Vincent J. Cardinal is returning to the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 2021 to direct The Comedy of Errors, after directing Every Brilliant Thing in 2019 and The Foreigner in 2018. He has also worked as an artistic director, playwright, or director in theatres across the United States. The following question-and-answer session was conducted via email and offers some interesting insights into one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival: You are planning to shift the location and time of this production of The Comedy of Errors. Would you tell us the location and time period we can look forward to and give us some insight as to why you made this decision?

Vincent J. Cardinal: Shakespeare’s Ephesus would have been a tantalizing place.

“They say this town is full of cozenage:
As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin” (The Comedy of Errors, Act 1, Scene 2).

Ephesus must be a place that can be the setting of a romance which reunites a refugee family; the setting of a rough and tumble farce for the groundlings; an environment full of surprises and delight; and a place where cultures and traditions can clash. In thinking about all of those needs, it was clear to me that contemporary audiences wouldn’t make those associations with Turkey, where Ephesus is actually located, but they might see these qualities in a Greek island paradise in 1979. A sort of Mamma Mia meets Shakespeare with the sound of waves, seagulls, and ABBA-inspired music.

The Festival: It is not uncommon to update Shakespeare’s plays in various ways (especially to adjust the time and location of the action). Why do you think theatre companies and directors do this, even when they seldom do it with other playwrights? Is there something unique about Shakespeare’s plays?

Cardinal: Many of Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed with “contemporary” costumes, props, and references. These familiar elements would give the audience significant information about the play’s characters, context, humor, and social assumptions.  By updating the time and location, we provide these clues to our contemporary audience and offer the experience that Shakespeare’s audience might have enjoyed in their time.

The Festival: Several of the plays at the Festival this year deal with immigrants or “outsiders” (Ragtime, Intimate Apparel, Pericles, and perhaps others). Do you see some of those themes in The Comedy of Errors?

Cardinal: The plot of The Comedy of Errors turns on the arrest of a refugee who must find a family member in this strange land in one day or face execution.  Like so many of Shakespeare’s comedies, this story sits on the foundation of heartbreak but grows in zaniness and hilarity as the plot unfolds and finally leads us to the touching and surprising reunion of a long divided refugee family.

The Festival: Comedies are not always considered among Shakespeare’s masterpieces, but they are some of his most popular plays. What is the value of theatres producing comedies as part of their seasons?

Cardinal: As George Bernard Shaw reminded us, “Life does not cease to be funny when someone dies any more than it ceases to be serious when someone laughs.” It is not an original observation that comedy and tragedy are the two sides of one coin. Tragedy accepts life’s darkness and leads the audience towards greater compassion and empathy, while comedy defies the darkness and prods the audience into laughter to survive the miseries of existence.

Especially in the face of a global pandemic, a challenging societal reckoning, rampant wildfires, and political unrest, the call today to survive through laughter and humor seems particularly vital. Comedy offers an emotional catharsis that leads to strength, resilience, and hopefulness. 

The Festival: The Comedy of Errors was one of Shakespeare’s early plays, perhaps his first comedy. How do you think it compares with later comedies such as All’s Well That Ends Well and The Tempest?

Cardinal: I love the youthful and chaotic energy of The Comedy of Errors. One can feel young Shakespeare’s audacity and delight in taking Plautus’ Menaechmi and doubling its twins, contemporizing its plot, and over stuffing every turn with well-worn comic bits. Where The Tempest is sublime, even in its low humor, and transcendent in its final unfolding, The Comedy of Errors relishes the plot mechanics of comic momentum and celebrates high-spirited merriment over an organic, emotional denouement.

The Festival: As playgoers, what should we watch for in this production that may help us enjoy it and/or understand it more?

Cardinal: Keep an eye on out for ways to distinguish which twin is which so you can anticipate and enjoy their reactions to the surprising plot twists.

The Festival: This is your third season in a row directing at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. What attracted you here and why do you keep returning?

Cardinal: Under the leadership of Brian Vaughn and Frank Mack, the Utah Shakespeare Festival is one of the great theatre festivals. Its extraordinary artisans help realize the visons of some of the best creative teams I have ever seen assembled.  The Festival attracts an acting company made up of the nation’s most seasoned stage veterans and most exciting new talent.  When I was invited to join the Festival, it was an honor that I couldn’t pass up. Although very different, The Foreigner and Every Brilliant Thing were special, creative experiences and highlights of my theatre career. With The Comedy of Errors, I’ll be directing in the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre for the first time.  I am excited by the challenge and eager to spend the summer in Shakespeare’s laughter-filled comedy.

The Festival: Besides theatre business, what is the one thing you plan on doing while in Cedar City?

Cardinal: Only one? Returning to Cedar City means catching up with friends, and some of that catching up happens in the areas restaurants: conversations over pizza at Centro or over coffee at The Grind. To burn off those calories, I love hiking in the area’s breathtaking parks including Zion National Park, Spring Creek Canyon, and Cedar Breaks. Cedar City and the Southern Utah University campus are also a walker’s delight.

The Festival: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Cardinal: The pandemic has darkened theatres all over the world.  It seems right that The Comedy of Errors will be among the first plays back on the boards at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.  Its premiere by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at Gray’s Inn marked one of the first productions offered after England’s plague quarantine of 1592–1594.

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