Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Comedy of Errors

Sheer delight is how I would describe director Daniel Sullivan’s staging of The Comedy of Errors, the first of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park productions, which opened last night at the Delacorte Theater. In 90 fast-paced minutes the Bard’s silliest play becomes a welcome escape into a world of mistaken identity, physical comedy, delicious wordplay and razor-sharp performances, with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater leading the way.

 The mayhem unleashed by the plot of two sets of identical twins, separated as children and now both unexpectedly in the same town, could be confusing to follow, especially since Ferguson (left in photo) and Linklater play the roles of each twin, remaining in the same costumes (wonderful designs Toni-Leslie James) throughout. With the slightest change in posture or tone of voice, we know which twin is involved, the longtime resident of Ephesus or the new arrival from Syracuse.

After being torn apart in a shipwreck 25 years ago, the young men are now master-servant pairs living in rival cities. The craziness begins when one pair crosses the border and locals mistake the new arrivals for their neighbors and the new arrivals are dumbfounded trying to figure out the working of this strange land where people act as if they know them. To further shake things up, the pairs who know each other are more often than not separated, so the servant from Syracuse is abused for not doing the wishes of the master from Ephesus and thinks his master is just acting capriciously. That sort of befuddlement continues as the different characters bump up against each other, not knowing they have a mirror of themselves nearby.

In the role of both servants, Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, Ferguson proves he is a master at physical comedy. Linklater, playing both masters, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, is the gentleman (or gentlemen), at least until the wackiness allows him to let loose. Their timing is perfect as they exit as one character only to appear a minute later as the other. These parts are usually cast with two actors who resemble each other, but these brave actors play both roles, and they make each one believable.

I know a bit about identical twins, being the daughter of one and niece of another. One scene reminded me of some family experience of mistaken identity. Antipholus of Ephesus has a wife, Adriana (Emily Bergl) who mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband and drags him home for dinner, leaving Dromio of Syracuse to guard the door to admit no one. Shortly thereafter, Antipholus of Ephesus returns home and is refused entry to his own house.

In our family, that confusion played out when my parents started dating and friends would report to my mother (a brunette) that they had seen John (my father) with a blonde, who was actually my Aunt Ruth out with her husband, Ed. Ruth would hear the same accounts of “Ed” being out with a brunette -- our own little comedy of errors. The play has a bit of this too, when Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love with Luciana (Heidi Schreck) , Adriana's sister, who is appalled at the behavior of the man she thinks is her brother-in-law.

Adding to the sparkle of this production are John Lee Beatty’s colorful cartoon cutout sets evoking a theatre, church, hotel, train station and jewelry store in an upstate New York town in the late 1930s. They are turned to go from one to the other just as seamlessly as the twins slide from one character to the other. An ensemble of dancers swing to music from the period (choreography by Mimi Lieber) before the show and during scene changes, enhancing the lively sense of fun.

Many other incidents of whimsy abound. I loved when an off-stage Antipholus of Ephesus calls for his wife, Adriana, in a gruff voice that immediately conjures up Sylvester Stallone’s famous “Yo, Adrian” from “Rocky.” All that was missing was the ‘yo,” but I’m sure everyone old enough to remember that feel-good 1976 film heard it.

The Public Theater’s production of The Comedy of Errors continues through June 30. I hope it moves to Broadway. It’s a joy!  

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