‘The Comedy of Errors’
Through Oct. 28
Shakespeare Theatre Company
at Lansburgh Theatre
450 7th St., N.W.
Director Alan Paul came out at just 15. He was the last of his group at performing arts camp to come clean on his sexuality. The rest had all come out at about 12, he says. Paul felt quite left behind. Certainly he’s never been behind professionally.
At 25, Paul was named Shakespeare Theatre Company associate artistic director under the auspices of legendary STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn. Now 34, Paul boasts an impressive CV crammed with work on classics, opera and musicals. He’s been nominated for several Helen Hayes Awards for directing and won for STC’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” His more recent production of “Camelot” has broken STC box office records.
Growing up in nearby Potomac, Md., Paul made frequent trips to New York to see Broadway musicals. He loved “Sunset Boulevard” with Glenn Close as Norma Desmond but was verily obsessed with the London cast recording featuring Patti LuPone as the reclusive silent film star. From an early age, Paul longed to be a part of the theater world and struck up correspondences with many Broadway professionals. After graduating from Northwestern University where he was in the musical theater program, Paul returned to his hometown to pursue a career in earnest. He splits his time between Washington and New York where he’s often called to meet with designers and audition actors.
Currently, Paul is staging STC’s production of Shakespeare’s early work “The Comedy of Errors,” a farce jam-packed with slapstick and mistaken identity revolving around two sets of identical twins. A twin himself, Paul felt instantly at home with the work’s situations and possibilities.
Recently he took a break from tech week to talk about his latest directorial effort and other things.
WASHINGTON BLADE: I read that you wanted to plumb the work for its romantic and elegant elements. True?
ALAN PAUL: Those were early words. When you see the fart jokes you won’t think elegance. It’s a difficult play because it has to be funny but it also has to be about real people. The characters are searching for lost loved ones. The premise is deep. The comedy of it is what happens in the course of this crazy 24 hours. But there is elegance in the physical production. I wanted a mostly black-and-white set and costumes. I’m inspired by films from the early ‘60s like the Greek romantic comedy “Never on a Sunday” starring Melina Mercouri.
BLADE: Is it wrong to associate you primarily with musicals?
PAUL: I’ve directed many plays but musicals have been the most visible thing I’ve done. I love both. It’s fun to jump back and forth. In addition to Michael (Kahn), my heroes include Jack O’Brien. He directed “Hairspray” and “Henry IV” on Broadway in the same year. And Michael Blakemore who on the same night won Tony Awards for directing a play and a musical, “Copenhagen” and a revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” respectively. People mistakenly think a director of musicals can’t be serious or real. Or a play director can’t be fun. I try really hard to play both sides of that. For “The Comedy of Errors,” we’re including some original music. It’s about creating that ‘60s Greek feeling. Also, the cast includes Eleasha Gamble who plays the courtesan and owner of the Porcupine Club. How could I not give her a song?
BLADE: You’re a twin. Has that been your way into “The Comedy of Errors”?
PAUL: Yes, I have a twin sister. For me, I understand the bond with my sister. The bond is different from what I have with anyone else. We share a sense of humor. If you looked at our text messages you’d have no idea what it means but we think it’s hilarious. Twins figure into so many of Shakespeare’s plays. I think Shakespeare had twins and one of them died. This play, and “Twelfth Night” especially, is about needing to find your other half. Shakespeare had a fantasy of family coming back together that never happened. I believe it comes from an extraordinary sense of loss.
BLADE: How did you go about casting twins?
PAUL: I’ve cast two sets of twins who look nothing alike. Put the same hat on them and who cares? We get it.
BLADE: Tell me about how Michael Kahn hired you.
PAUL: It was over drinks at Playbill Café. I miss that place so much. Not a big deal for him, but life changing for me.
BLADE: This is Michael Kahn’s last season at STC. What has he taught you?
PAUL: He pushed me very hard when I was very young to run the department. He gave me a lot of responsibility and expected me to know what I was doing. I figured out how to do it and I think that he gave me a lot of confidence early on. Also, I will take away his incredibly high standards. He won’t let anything go that does meet a certain standard. And I have that myself. An internal GPS that says “not good enough.”
BLADE: Will you work under Kahn’s appointed successor, Simon Godwin?
PAUL: That’s an ongoing conversation. I like him and am excited to see what he’ll do.
BLADE: Was directing The Comedy of Errors your choice?
PAUL: STC wasn’t doing a musical this season so I knew I’d do a play. I really wanted to do Shakespeare so Michael and I talked about a lot of different titles. Comedies to dramas. We hadn’t done this one in a long time. I thought it was a great way to open the season and I wanted to assemble a group of funny people that the audience would know. It’s always fun to have artists on stage together who have contributed to the success of STC. People like Tom Story, Nancy Robinette, Ted van Griethuysen, Sarah Marshall.
BLADE: And don’t forget Veanne Cox as Adriana.
PAUL: Yes, wait until you see her arguing with a parrot. She has a pet bird that talks to her.
BLADE: Last season you broke Shakespeare Theatre Company sales record with your production of “Camelot.” How do you explain that?
PAUL: The election. I’d been uncertain about doing “Camelot.” People love the music but not so much the book. But when Hillary Clinton lost the election, I couldn’t help but wonder what Obama was thinking about his legacy. That’s what King Arthur goes through at the end of the play. When the Round table is cracked he says that barbarism is the natural state of man. Then at the end of the scene he meets the kid and his spirit is revived. I thought that’s the story Washington needed to hear. And I was right.
BLADE: There are so many shows opening right about now. Why see “The Comedy of Errors”?
PAUL: Well, it’s short — 95 action-packed minutes. Nobody wants to see a really long play. With this production, you’re out in time to get drinks or supper. Also, it’s funny. In these times of the stressful news cycle, I want to give people some entertainment and joy.
BLADE: Tell me about your childhood letter writing.
PAUL: Yes, I have a whole book of correspondence, about one hundred letters. I started writing letter c/o the stage door when I was a kid. I wrote stage managers, a dance captain and actors like George Hearn. I have letters from Audra McDonald before she was famous. Bob Mackie wrote me. I wanted to know how things worked.
BLADE: How does being gay figure into your work?
PAUL: Freedom to have fun with sexuality. Someone in the show accused me of trying to make this into a John Waters’ movie. I said that’s a good thing. There’s lots of drag. Sarah Marshall plays a man, Dr. Pinch. Three men double as female characters.
BLADE Any directorial projects you’re itching to tackle?
PAUL Yes, two musical and a play. In keeping with my Greek ‘60s film thing, I’d like to do the musical “Zorba.” And another is “Golden Boy,” the musical based the Clifford Odets play about a young man from Harlem who pursues prizefighting despite his family’s objections. It needs a little doctoring, but I think that would make a wonderful Broadway revival. And the play is “Teenage Dick.” It’s got a provocative title but it’s actually a version of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” set in an American high school. It played at the Public Theater in New York this summer. Please someone in Washington let me do this. It will be a huge hit in this town, I’m certain.