Of this summer's three productions, The Comedy of Errors is the one most in tune with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's slogan, "Shakespeare Under the Stars." It's funny, bright, relaxed and magical, the perfect amusement for a soft summer night.
Comedy of Errors is an early work based on the comedy of Plautus, the kind of farcical comedy in which the characters are stock figures and the humor lies in watching them run around as they try to figure out who's who, misunderstand every word they hear and periodically get thwacked over the head. But this being Shakespeare, there's a little complexity and humanity in it nonetheless. So on one level, Adriana is the stock shrewish wife (and a clear forerunner of Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew), but she also has cogent ideas about women's subjugation in marriage, and her grief at her husband's neglect is occasionally moving. The plot, which concerns two sets of identical twins, sparks a few thoughts about personal identity amid the hilarity. And Shakespeare used the plight of Egeon, father of the primary set of twins who's been sentenced to death, as a sobering frame for the action.
The twins -- all separated at birth, naturally -- are the Antipholuses and their servants, the Dromios. One Antipholus is a settled citizen of Ephesus, married to Adriana and running a household. The second, of Syracuse, has traveled to Ephesus in search of his lost brother. Pretty soon, Antipholus of Syracuse is dining with Adriana, who believes he's her husband, while the Ephesian Antipholus is shut out of his own home. Meanwhile, the two Dromios are running frantically from place to place, being given incomprehensible (to them) instructions and carrying out most of them for the wrong Antipholus.
The Comedy of Errors
Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado, Boulder
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in rotation with Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, through August 15, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org
Director Stephanie Shine has a fast, sure hand, and in general her ideas work well. She has set the play in nineteenth-century New Orleans. Curt Enderle's colorful set features a narrow, angled two-level house and elegant wrought-iron gates. It feels as if Shine has given the actors a lot of freedom to improvise bits, but she's also reined them in where necessary. The nutty shenanigans are effective because they support the spirit of the play -- and also because the lines are spoken with clarity.
Take the opening scene. Egeon, father of the Antipholuses, has come to Ephesus in search of his sons, but because Syracusans are not permitted in Ephesus, he's been sentenced to death. Curious, the Duke asks Egeon for his story, and Egeon gives a lengthy expository speech about the birth of the twins and how they were lost -- exactly the kind of speech that gets an audience restlessly coughing. But Shine has provided a group of comically inept pirates, who are about as convincingly fierce as the Pirates of Penzance, to serve as the chorus. They not only listen to Egeon's story, but they act it out. This is funny, and it actually helps clarify the narrative.
There are other delightful devices. Apparently influenced by French farce, Shine periodically has characters slamming in and out of adjoining doors, missing each other or running into each other in a frantic ballet. Now and then, someone bursts into song (Kevin Dunayer is credited with the sound design). A crocodile wanders the stage. Then there's the great, greasy kitchen maid (Zachary M. Andrews, in drag), who's married to one of the Dromios and baffled by the indifference of the other, whom she mistakes for her husband. At one point, she stands on the balcony declaiming, "Dromio, Dromio..." -- and you know the rest. Later she chases the reluctant Dromio round and round the upstairs balcony area, the two of them whirling in and out of doorways until they resemble the circling figures of a mechanical clock.
Trying to raise the money that will ransom his life, Egeon wanders through the audience with a sign that reads "Will work for freedom." The play's many comments about sorcery and witchcraft are underscored by faint drumming. Pinch, a loathsome and mean-spirited doctor in the original text, is here transformed into a Jamaican conjuror. I was of two minds about this particular innovation; it seemed so farcical and broadly conceived that it could easily have toppled the entire production into chaos. But then, chaos is at the heart of Comedy (and comedy), so maybe the conjuror is okay. The one bit that did trouble me was the decision to portray the merchant to whom one of the characters owes money as a Jewish moneylender, an incipient Shylock.
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Each pair of twins is played by the same actor -- and I have to admit, it took me forever to realize it. This is a risky directorial decision, but Shine pulled it off.
I think the main reason for the production's success is that it's genuinely good-hearted. The Dromios are constantly getting beaten, but the blows are stylized; also, Ryan Spickard portrays the Dromios as tough, agile little buggers who give as good as they get. Adriana, played by Cheryl McFarren, may be alternately angry and whiny, but she clearly loves her errant Antipholus of Ephesus. Rachel Schwartz gives Adriana's sister Luciana an absurd gloss, though there's just enough sweetness in the characterization to charm. Both these actresses are very good; they're physically expressive, and they're comfortable enough with Shakespeare's language to play humorous games with their lines.
On the night I saw Comedy, understudy Jeffrey Sasz played the Antipholuses, and he did a masterful job of differentiating them: Syracuse was hapless and good-natured, Ephesus meaner and rougher of spirit. Joel C. Morello triumphed as an eccentric, simpering Duke, as did Willie E. Teacher playing the Courtesan. Other standouts were Jake Hart as Angelo and Logan Ernstthal as Egeon.
All in all, a starlit good time.