The Comedy of Errors
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
October 17, 2007
Let's get right down to it. This Comedy of Errors presented by Stages on the Sound has a limited engagement at the Cathedral Pavilion, which is a large hall on Jay Street in Brooklyn, just a leisurely ten minute walk from a number of subways. You should go. You will laugh, you will smile constantly, and you will consistently wonder at how in heck they are able to pull off Shakespeare's complete comedy with just four actors.
That's right: four actors. But, these are skilled comedians, under the direction of Will Ditterline, all adept at instant characterizations, who never shy from a pratfall for full comic effect. Not that these four flop about the stage. Rather, they race around the three-quarter thrust and through the audience, which is at the same level as the stage; all with joyous abandon, literally embracing the audience in the action. All this in full view, as the only lighting is the hall's own overhead lights.
The spirit is pure commedia dell'arte, which is no surprise, since the troupe calls itself the Brooklyn Studio Dell'arte. This style is totally appropriate to the play, a broad farce that the Bard adapted from two ancient Roman low comedies of Plautus, Menaechmi and Amphitruo, both written around 200 B.C.
The plot revolves around spiraling scenes of mistaken identity: two sets of twins are at the same place at the same time, unbeknownst to each other. The action takes place in various locales of the city of Ephesus, all in one fateful day. The story began 33 years before our play, when Egeon and wife Emilia had two sons, identical twins named Antipholus, who they were raising with another set of identical twins, both called Dromio, who they had purchased from a "mean woman" to be servants to their boys. While transporting the infants home, a storm wrecked their vessel and split them up, one son and servant with Egeon and the other pair with Emilia. The former ended up at home in Syracuse, where they grew up with Dad, all the while longing to know the fate of Mom and the lost twins. The latter were separated from their mother by pirates, yet ended up in Ephesus, where they made their home and where, coincidently Mom had retired to a convent, despondent at the loss of her family. Antipholus of Ephesus has married Adriana (who has a sister Luciana) and is now a prominent citizen, complete with friendly courtesan, and with Dromio as his manservant.
On the day of the play, Egeon and the Syracusian Antipholus and Dromio are in Ephesus. The son and servant have come in search of their lost twins; the father has followed them there. Unfortunately, Syracusians are marked enemies in Ephesus: the younger men escape the dragnet, but Egeon is arrested immediately upon arrival. His arrest, and ensuing explanation to the Duke as to why he has dared to transgress enemy lines, comprises the initial expository scene.
In many productions, Egeon's tale of woe is simultaneously acted out by the troupe of actors. Here, in a clever 21st century update, Egeon's story is illustrated by a very funny PowerPoint presentation (special kudos to computer designer Robert Choiniere). From the start, Ditterline embraces the present while being true to the ancient farcical form, thus ensuring accessibility to modern audiences who may never have seen Shakespeare or know Plautus's work.
Back to the story. The Duke, moved by Egeon's tale, grants a day's reprieve for him to get money to pay his fine or face execution. During that day, each Antipholus and Dromio are consistently mistaken for their twins, causing a marital rift with Adriana, a budding love with Luciana, many beatings to the Dromios, false arrest, a failed exorcism, and errors of betrayal to the courtesan, a merchant, a goldsmith, and others. Happily, all are reunited in the end, including Egeon with his long lost wife Emilia, now the Abbess at the local convent.
To tell this tale, Shakespeare calls for more than 20 characters: however, Ditterline and co-artistic director Shannon Michael Wamser, as adaptors, have judiciously pared the characters to a manageable dozen or so. This, together with the use of simple character signifiers (like glasses for one Antipholus and Dromio, a feather boa for the Courtesan, or a flowered barrette for Adriana) allows us to clearly follow who is playing who. These signifiers become key in scenes where there are more than four characters onstage at once. How they are used is part of the fun and I won't spoil it for you here. Just know that if you are feeling at all helpful, be sure to sit in the front rows (don't worry, no one is asked to go onstage and "act").
All four ensemble members are equally wonderful in their multiple roles: Bryn Boice, who plays Adriana, among others; Christopher Catalano, who plays both Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, and more; Liz Dailey, who gives us Luciana, et al.; and the aforementioned Wamser, who plays both Dromios and others. Each character they inhabit is clearly defined and we have no problem following the story. Of particular note is the scene when the two Dromios talk to each other, one on either side of a locked door. Wamser establishes a convention that has us watch him talk to "himself" without us ever losing track of the hilarious action. By the time the final scene arrives, at the end of a remarkably fast 90 minutes (no intermission), we are so used to the conventions established and are having such fun, that we amazingly follow the reconciliation, with both sets of twins, the parents, courtesan, goldsmith, doctor and more "onstage," without any loss of story or comic effect.
I was happy to have discovered this performance space and this company, and left with a broad smile, yes maybe even a silly grin, for what I had just experienced. Bravos to all involved!