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A CurtainUp Review
The Comedy of Errors
By Les Gutman
Separated at birth during a storm at sea are two sets of identical twins. One set (inexplicably bearing the also identical name Antipholus) have the other twins (both known as Dromio) as their servants. The parents of the first pair are also separated by the storm. Conventionally, two actors are cast as Antipholus and two as Dromio (designated by the Mediterranean towns in which they grew up, Ephesus and Syracuse). When the Syracusean twins, followed by the father, show up in Ephesus in search of their long lost twins, the consequences of mistaken identities pile on, making for perhaps the most farcically hilarious of Shakespeare's plays.
This production, however, adds another wrinkle to the identity crises: both Antipholuses are portrayed by Hamish Linklater, and both Dromios are played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Cutting the play to an intermissionless hour and a half, and setting it in upstate New York in the 1930's, Sullivan has indeed created a new set of carefully crafted trials for the script and the actors. Everything succeeds.
It's always nice to get to the park early on a nice night. For this show, getting in your seats a quarter hour or so before the official 8:30 start time yields extra dividends. The production boasts six dancers enjoying themselves and impressing the audience both before the show and also during the scene changes during the show. They're dancing to Mimi Lieber's excellent choreography, and fine period music, much of it Greg Pliska's original compositions for the production.
John Lee Beatty has provided well for both the exterior Ephesus townscape and interior scenes through the use of three rotating buildings. Jeff Croiter has lit the playing area conservatively but well, Toni-Leslie James has designed apt costumes throughout and Acme Sound Partners have again met the challenges of creating effective outdoor sound that must compete not only with nature but also planes flying overhead.
While performances in the park often have been somewhat hit or miss, the casting of this production is terrific throughout. Both Linklater, who gets to show off his pure acting virtuosity more, and Ferguson, who earns more of the laughs, are exceptional, and fun to watch. Especially interesting is the subtlety of their shifts between their twin characters. Jonathan Hardary is just great to watch both as the father, Egeon, and later as Pinch, the doctor (here rendered in full Freudian mode). Emily Bergl (as Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus) and Heidi Schreck (as her sister, Luciana) are quite good as well; Bergl acquits her major monologue brilliantly (as does Linklater with his). These are standout Shakespearean arias, brought to full glory in this production. Also notable are Skipp Suddath's Duke (with a few surprises), De'Adre Aziza's whore (and we get to hear her sing as well), Robert Creighton's goldsmith and Becky Ann Baker's abbess. There is always a lot of broad comedy and slapstick in this play, and that's certainly true of this production, but it manages to be extremely effective without being overwhelming. Also winning are a number of sight and prop gags that add to the entertainment.
The Comedy of Errors is never a long evening, but it feels well served by the trimming that gets it down to roughly ninety minutes. Famously, it is one of only two Shakespeare plays that observe the Aristotelian unities of time, place and plot, and the necessary compression here only adds to that sensibility. There's also a healthy dose of rearrangement required to accommodate the doubling of the twins in particular, and for all this credit should also be given to the dramaturg, Robert Blacker.
It is surprising that this play hasn't been one of the mainstays of Shakespeare in the Park — it has been over two decades since it was last done -- so this most enjoyable evening is much appreciated. Next up we can anticipate a musical version of a play that has been away from the park even longer -- Love's Labour's Lost, last seen in 1965. Hurrah for reclaiming both.