Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #2 in my new interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.
Christina Pumariega has been on an all-boro tour with the Mobile Shakespeare Unit and The Comedy of Errors. The MSU is part of the Public Theater, bringing free plays to prisons, shelters, and other community centers across NYC. Coming off the road, Pumariega emailed with me about Adriana, the "skyrocket" of Shak's comedy.
I’m a big fan of the Mobile Shakespeare Unit’s mission. How does its primary audience of non-traditional theatergoers affect the company’s approach to this Comedy of Errors?
"Accessibility" was the word that continually came up in rehearsals. Our director prioritized it, our company mined for it, our designers translated it, our producers advocated for it, again and again and again. Everything we've made in our Comedy of Errors has been in pursuit of inviting audiences to step into a world that's relatable, familiar, funny, and true. Even though the events that transpire are ridiculously heightened, as a team we worked towards meeting the truth in every scene, often confronting audience members with our jokes and insults and ideas face-to-face. And I think every member of our cast can attest to these "non-traditional theatergoers" as hands down the best audiences in the five boroughs.
What sort of aesthetic does Kwame Kewi-Armah bring to Comedy?
Kwame's concept for this Comedy brings us to the ultimate American border town, where Ephesus and Syracuse parallel South Texas and Mexico, a region that historically, depending on who you talk to from that area, cannot simply be divided by one single line or mandate. This grey zone is far more dangerous for some than others, and Kwame really sought to explore how political corruption, capitalism, and currency dictate the value of human life in a rich country shoulder-to-shoulder with a poor one. These are extreme people living extremely now, and Kwame encouraged us towards the reality of what it means to be "other" in corrupt, materialistic Ephesus. What's incredible about this play is everyone at some point or another feels the sting of this indictment.
Have you seen or performed in Comedy before?
I've never seen or performed in The Comedy of Errors prior to our Mobile Shakespeare Unit production. I actually think it's lucky that such an old play has been a brand new one for me. It's enormously freeing.
What have you discovered about the play? or about Shakespeare in general?
Every day we find dozens of new discoveries. And that's largely due to our audience. Touring has reminded me never to take for granted how completely different every audience is, simply in playing one different environment after another. The moment you assume how the story will unfold in front of people you rob them of all the discovery that lies in you as a storyteller.
What’s surprised you about Adriana? What’s the most difficult facet of the role?
Before we started rehearsing, a director friend gave me some advice about her. She emphasized how Adriana does everything out of love. I thought, “Oh yeah of course. That's a given. I love my husband. Sure.” But in skyrocketing from one tactic to the next, one emotion to another, I found conveying real love to be quite difficult.
It's the seesaw I ride every time we play. How to navigate someone powerful and sensual who knows her mind, but is shaped by fear. Every day she looks and feels more and more familiar. And every day I try to love with more bravery, less abandon.
Have you acted in Shakespeare or other classics before this?
I've acted in a good deal of Shakespeare and Jacobean plays, yes. Inevitably there are always very few women in the room, which honestly just makes things dull and dusty. That isn't the case with our production, I'm very proud to say.
Do you believe training is necessary?
I don't think formal training is necessary. Often I think rigid approaches to text work get in the way and keep me from trying new things on my feet. Still, for me classical plays require access to lots of breath and tons of curiosity. And these things aren't mutually exclusive.
Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to perform? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?
Few of the women's roles are on my list, because I've seen a lot of killer Rosalinds and Lady Macbeths and Imogens and Cleopatras. I'm very interested in playing some of those men's roles: Mercutio, Cassisus, Iago, Hamlet.
Shakespeare writes complex women, but he often begins with negative types. In Comedy, for instance, he plays with audience expectations of a shrewish wife and her good-girl sister. How do you try to reconcile his 16th-century depictions of women with your 21st-century views?
I reconcile it probably the same way most actresses do, by trying to make these bottomless needs real. The size and scope of that desire often seems towering on the page, but Adriana's fear or jealousy or love is just as real as any other human at the end of their rope. She is mouthy and muscular and that reminds me of women I know, especially the Italian and Cuban women who raised me. They make a lot of uncomfortable noise, but they fight for love ferociously, and in doing so they demand to be heard.
The Mobile Shakespeare Unit's Comedy of Errors runs from Nov 1 to 22 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets are $20.
photos Joan Marcus