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Audience Loves “Comedy,” Critic Sees Errors

“The Comedy of Errors” at Shakespeare & Company, through Sept. 2, 2004

Critics are paid to be opinionated. Ideally, our opinions are reasoned and constructive, informed by knowledge and experience. But at bottom, we are just consumers like the folks who have to pay for their tickets instead of getting fourth-row comps (is this a great job, or what?) from the theaters that are at the mercy of our judgments. So it behooves us to show a little humility. If we can keep our cool while all around us are losing it—to misquote Kipling—we should at least acknowledge the disconnect.

Therefore, I am obliged to report that I only half enjoyed Shakespeare & Company’s new production of “The Comedy of Errors,” but the opening-night audience just loved it. While they chuckled I sat stony-faced, and when I smiled they roared.

Mind you, I like broad comedy and zany farce just fine. But for me, Cecil MacKinnon’s endlessly inventive comic business missed the target as often as it bulls eyed, and the manic performances were in constant danger of spilling over the top.

“The Comedy of Errors” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, written when he was still stretching his wings, stealing even more shamelessly from his sources than he did later in his career, and showing off his upstart skill at clever repartee and word-gamesmanship. “Comedy” is a pseudo-Greco-Roman romp about two sets of identical twins with the same names—two Antipholuses and their two servants, both named Dromio. Separated in infancy, they have been reared at opposite ends of the known world, unknown to each other, one pair in Syracuse, Sicily, the other in Ephesus, across the Mediterreanean on the coast of Asia Minor.

When the Syracusans show up in Ephesus, conveniently dressed just like their local counterparts, the comic mistaken-identity errors of the title begin to pile up. When Antipholus of Syracuse is summoned “home” to dine—and sleep—with Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife, A. of E. finds himself locked out of his own house. When A. of S. takes delivery of a gold chain made for A. of E., the latter is arrested for refusing to pay for it because he never got it. Meanwhile Dromio of Syracuse is pursued by the “spherical” kitchen wench who wants to get her greasy talons into the other Dromio. Etcetera.

Although the play is nominally set in classical times, that’s just a nod to the Roman comedies of Plautus that Shakespeare adapted. The original production was doubtless performed in Elizabethan garb and drew heavily on Renaissance-era commedia dell’arte slapstick situations and stock characters. Arthur Oliver’s costumes are vaguely Baroque—cutaway frock coats and knee britches, bosomy gowns flounced with lace—and set designer Kris Stone’s vision of Ephesus is a carnival funhouse.

A neon sign hangs over the midway, flanked by multicolored ranks of distorted cartoon doors through which nosy neighbors peer at the strange goings-on. Transportation is via a whirling teacup ride. Fairgoers samba (rather stiffly) to an Afro-Caribbean beat. And as the twin confusions mount, so does the surrealism.

A key is delivered by a disembodied hand that appears from the floor. Two big blue wormlike creatures slither up through manholes, nose around some, and slide back down. A revolving door shows glimpses of a domestic interior, an eye-boggling geometric design, blue sky and a funhouse mirror. When poor confused Antipholus of Ephesus is suspected of having gone made through witchcraft, the exorcism is a crazed dance sequence with choreographic quotations from “West Side Story” and “Flashdance.”

The players inhabit this funhouse in the highest of spirits. Most tickling are the two Dromios, Dan McCleary and Tony Molina. They have most of the slapstick bits (they’re regularly and indiscriminately kicked, cuffed and beaten with floppy truncheons) and they get a large portion of the laughs. They’re both big gents, one barrel-chested, the other barrel-bellied, who might be taken for relatives if one weren’t white and the other black.

This double-dare-you treatment of the ruling convention—that the characters onstage can’t distinguish between two guys who don’t look much alike—applies to the two Antipholuses as well. Michael Milligan is white, with thinning blond hair, while African-American George Hannah sports a fine mop of dreadlocks.

The interplay between the boys from Syracuse works nicely, Milligan agog with wonder at the delightful mysteries befalling him, and Molina bringing sassy wit to Dromio’s tricks and tribulations. Dan McCleary is a terrific clown, his Dromio of Ephesus constantly on the move executing his master’s orders or avoiding his blows. But Hannah is only adequate, a stiff and stuffy Antipholus of Ephesus.

Elizabeth Aspenlieder pulls out all the stops as A. of E.’s wife, Adriana, a passionate lady who goes from soft entreaties to roaring like a tigress at her real and supposed husbands’ real and imagined slights. Anne Gottlieb works well with Aspenlieder, but turns in the show’s most restrained performance as Adriana’s sister, a functional presence who’s on stage mainly as a foil for Adriana and a love interest for the Syracusan Antipholus.

Jonathan Epstein appears at the beginning and end as the Antipholuses’ father, and makes the old man’s tedious explanation of how the boys were separated, and how he himself wound up in Ephesus under sentence of death, both comprehensible and funny. And Jason Asprey makes a three-course meal of what is usually a straight role, the goldsmith who hounds Antipholus for the money for his chain. With the help of an outlandish Frenchified (or is that Spanglish?) accent and a dandy’s swagger, Asprey creates a great comic turn.

The audience rolled right along with all of the show’s frivolity, laughing easily and often throughout the comparatively short proceedings (two and a half hours start to finish). I found a lot of it very droll but too scattershot, an incessant rat-tat-tat volley of jokes and sight gags fired off, sometimes at random, to see how many would hit. I was always engaged, but not consistently amused.

But who am I to argue with a roomful of laughter?

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