It was a beautiful night when I attended one of the New York’s most cherished institutions, The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in Central Park at the Delacorte Theater. This year their first offering is The Comedy of Errors, (a musical version of the Bard’s Love Labours Lost follows later this summer) one of William Shakespeare's earliest works. It is his shortest and one of his most farcicalcomedies, with a major part of the humour coming from slapstick and mistaken identity.
It is a silly but fun story of two sets of identical twins that are accidentally separated at birth. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus. When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities ensues.
Veteran director Daniel Sullivan sets this production in the late 1930’s in upstate New York, complete with big band music and period dancing. As always, the Public Theater has access to a highly talented pool of artists and this show is led by familiar stage and TV character actors Hamish Linklater, known to most from TV’s “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, known to most from TV’s “Modern Family.”
I was torn by this production. As is sometimes done, though not often, two actors take on both sets of twins, Linklater as Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus and Ferguson as the servant Dromio’s of same. This ploy, when coupled with lighting fast quick changes into obviously different costumes, can prove a delectable challenge for the actors and a delight for the audience as they are in on the obvious joke. In this production the scene and costume changes are masked behind inserted lively dance numbers and slow turning sets that seem unnecessary, as these actors merely change a hat or add a flower to their lapel to indicate which twin they are portraying. Despite some slight changes in speech (Linklater makes a nice choice of lower his voice for one twin) without clearer changes this makes it harder to decipher which twin is speaking, especially in the earlier scenes if you are not familiar with the play. And in the end when the two sets of twins must face each other, the solution in this production is less than satisfying. Although the nature of farce is quickly paced deliveries, here the cast delivers it more like a sitcom with the actors pausing for their laughs. While this style of delivery can add comic tension to some very funny moments (such as Ferguson slowly describing the kitchen maid who lusts for him) it slackens the overall energy of the production.
There were a substantial amount of children there the night that I attended. A moment when a group of “gangsters” pull out their guns and point them at the head of the character of old man Egeon, who is on his knees caused a notable reaction of uncomfortable murmuring in the audience around me. Times are wary after all and this is a comedy. Another choice might be to have actors simply step in menacingly or start to put their hands in their jackets to signify guns.
The cast itself is highly enjoyable. Ferguson and Linklater are joined by Jonathan Hadary as Egeon/Pinch, Emily Bergl as a sharp tongued Adriana, the put upon wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, Heidi Schreck as a mellower Luciana, her sister, Skipp Sudduth as a gangster type Duke, plus an unfortunate turn in drag as Nell, Robert Creighton as Angelo, Keith Eric Chapelle as Balthasar, Becky Ann Baker as Emilia, and the sultry singing De’Adre Aziza as the Courtesan, who is given a song lifted from another Bard comedy.
John Lee Beatty has designed a clever set with three separate building units that revolve, and the lighting design by Jeff Croiter, sound design by Acme Sound Partners, and original music by Greg Pliska all add to the fun. Though I found the dancing interludes somewhat counterproductive at times, the wonderful choreography by Mimi Leiber is outstanding, as are the dancers themselves, and the colorful costume design by Toni-Leslie James playfully captures the era perfectly.
At the very end of the production there is a musical number where the entire cast dances onstage and the set pieces turn “quickly” (proving that they can) which is lively and fun, but feels anticlimactic when performed after the curtain call is already over. Some of the non-dancer cast members look downright uncomfortable doing it. Still a fun evening out…but kind of a mishmash here.