The Comedy of Errors is full of them

An early Shakespeare play based on a Roman comedy (Plautus's The Menaechmi), The Comedy of Errors utilizes a lot of plot devices that were hoary even in Shakespeare's time — although naturally, they're at least used deftly. As the play opens, Egeon, a Merchant of Syracuse, has been captured in Ephesus, a rival city. He faces death unless he can come up with a hefty fine. But the Duke of Ephesus prevails on him to tell his story, and it's a killer: A son, Antipholus, who happens to be a twin, was lost at sea together with his mother and a servant, Dromio, also a twin; the second twin, named for the one lost, is still living in Syracuse, along with the second servant. But we quickly learn that the lost Antipholus has actually settled in Ephesus with his wife, Adriana, and his Dromio; soon his Syracusan twin arrives with the Syracusan Dromio.

Many mixups ensue, with the Dromios sent on all kinds of errands, reporting almost invariably to the wrong Antipholus and being beaten for their efforts; Antipholus of Syracuse is mistaken by Adriana for her husband — while he's falling for her sister, Luciana. But, of course, everything works out in the end. The show is about plot, speed and mistaken identity rather than poetry or insight, but there's still a little of both, as well as some hilarious comic lines, as when Dromio of Syracuse describes Luce, the kitchen maid who's married to his counterpart. She's huge, he says, an entire globe unto herself, and then he divides her into countries in line with Elizabethan politics and prejudices. Ireland, he says, is represented by her buttocks: "I found it out by the bogs."

In their program note, co-directors Carolyn Howarth and Daniel Stein say they focused on issues of self and identity, but I didn't sense those themes in this production. They did come up with one nice, overarching idea: Since the action takes place on an island and the sea plays a large part, and also because of the dream-like, Jungian connotations of the ocean, they filled the stage with fantastical sea creatures, a device that added resonance to all the lines about strangeness and delusion — though the costumes could have been more vividly evocative.

This is a production that seems to have accommodated every piece of shtick thought up by any and every actor during the rehearsal process. If someone says horse, you know a loud neigh will follow. Lines funny enough in themselves get acted out phrase by phrase. There's a plethora of ridiculous walks. Adriana and Luciana are clear precursors to Katharina and Bianca of The Taming of the Shrew, though Adriana's musings on male/female relationships are more sane than shrewish, and it's clear that she does love her Antipholus. Karen Slack plays her in a constant fury, however, replete with wrestling moves and grotesque grimaces reminiscent of Lady Macbeth's mask-like expressions in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, and Amy Handra makes Luciana a bit of a simperer. Gary Wright has some good moments as Dromio of Syracuse, but of all the characters on stage, only Josh Robinson's Antipholus of Syracuse resembles an actual breathing human being.

Some years ago, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival staged a Comedy of Errors set in New Orleans that was every bit as slapsticky as this one but had daring, heart and unity. I laughed out loud when that condemned Egeon wandered into the audience with a sign reading "Will work for freedom." There's no accounting for tastes in humor, and through all the yips and yelps, lisps and limps of this year's version, my primary response was just faint irritation.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman