The Comedy of Errors: This Joint Is Jumping

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How it’s New York: Shakespeare in the Park is in Central Park, with the city buildings peeping up over the Delacorte Theater, and one of the events that
says “summer in New York.”The Comedy of ErrorsPublic Theater/Delacorte Theater
How it’s (Irish) English: William Shakespeare was English, and this play also includes a line in which a character asks about a woman as spherical as a globe, “Where is Ireland?”

As I walked down the path from the Delacorte Theater after The Comedy of Errors, I overheard someone marvel to his friend that after the very beginning, it was just as if the characters were speaking modern English. He’d never found it so easy to follow Shakespeare before. Two things stand out here: because it’s Shakespeare in the Park, and because it’s Manhattan, of course you’re overhearing what other people are saying. The nature of this event is communal, from the standing in line at noon to get the free tickets (press don’t have to, but most people do), to the waiting in line to get in your entrance to the theater, or to buy a drink, or anything else.

The other thing is that the man was absolutely right.

The “strangeness” of the language wears off incredibly fast, and then it’s as accessible, vivid and enjoyable as any summer blockbuster comedy. Like a summer flick, the story’s a little predictable, and like any comedy of mistaken identity, we get way ahead of it, so the fun is all in the telling. And what glorious telling. A top-rate cast, a pace that zips along without leaving us behind, color, humor, a light touch, and terrific swing choreography from Mimi Lieber.  Director Daniel Sullivan plays with the play as if it’s a toy for him, and magically turns the audience into children eager to be amused.

It’s an exuberant, hilarious show. If you could only see one staging of “The Comedy of Errors,” this is the one to see.

In any Shakespeare play there’s usually a period of adjustment for your ears to “catch” the style and the words, kind of like when you’re playing in a session and you don’t quite know what tune it is at first that someone’s started, and then suddenly you do and join in. At “The Comedy of Errors,” the period of adjustment is very small, and director Daniel Sullivan uses it brilliantly. At the top of the show, Egeon (Jonathan Hadary), sentenced to death for being from Syracuse in Ephesus, explains how he lost his wife and one of his twin sons, with one of the twin servants, in a shipwreck many years ago, and has now come to seek the surviving twin who was traveling to seek them.

The Comedy of Errors

Jonathan Hadary and Keith Eric Chappelle, ©Joan Marcus

This is the one place in the entire play where the language seemed Elizabethan. And even here, thanks to the invention of director Daniel Sullivan, the comedy overrides the discomfort. Syracuse is a  real town in upstate New York, and Sullivan has set the play itself in upstate New York, beginning at a bus stop that says “Adirondack Transit Lines.” Heh. On top of that, The Duke (Skipp Sudduth) is clearly a mafioso, dressed in black with hands in pockets, with goons standing menacingly around. Heh. But best of all, as Egeon tells his story, he takes props out of his suitcase to illustrate it, and the suitcase is like Mary Poppins’ bag, because things keep coming out of it that are much too big to fit, including at one point a huge model of a ship.

It all matches the energy and wit of the pre-show , a group of jive dancers performing with style and spirit to juke-box numbers, including Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing Sing.”

The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s shortest play, at only 1,777 lines. Running time for the show is only 90 minutes, with no intermission. Most of the time when you’re sitting outside, even somewhere beautiful, short is good– fewer bugs, less chance of rain. This is one piece that you won’t want to end. If it were one of those songs on the jukebox, you’d be putting in another coin. Let’s hear it again. (It also made me want to rush out and take a dance class…)

You know you’re in a playful, fun world as soon as you see John Lee Beatty’s terrific set: three block towers that revolve, and revolve in sections, like those children’s toys of four people, one on each side, and you could switch out the head, middle and legs to create different combinations (I tried and failed to find a picture of this because I couldn’t put in the right search words, but if anybody knows what they were called and can tell me I’d be grateful!). As they revolve, sometimes we see inside of one, so there seem to be endless combinations: a jewelry store on one side, a bus stop on another, Adriana’s apartment, then the top floor of the apartment. They are painted with a vintage look to them; the artificiality is part of the fun. The dancers return in between each scene to cover the change, which adds liveliness and bounce to the comedy.

The jazz, jive, pulsing beat keeps the story hopping.The story is based on Plautus’ The Menaechmi and it really is a simple one of mistaken identity. Twin boys and twin servants were separated in a

The Comedy of Errors, The Public Theater

Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, ©Joan Marcus

shipwreck. When one grown-up twin arrives in Ephesus he’s baffled by why his servant tells him to come home for supper with his wife, why a merchant wants to be paid for a chain. Similarly, the twin who does live there (the twins and servants share names, a choice made to memorialize the missing ones, which of course adds to the confusion) doesn’t understand why his wife is mad at him, why he hasn’t received the chain he paid for, and so on.

Sullivan chose to cast one actor for each twin, meaning that Hamish Linklater as Antiopholus and Jesse Tyler Fergus as Dromio get a real cardio workout as they literally run on and off. It also helps us understand why the population of Ephesus keep mixing them up. As both Dromios, Fergus was as hysterical as he is in “Modern Family”: deadpan, exuberant, snarky.

As Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife, Emily Bergl displays sexy jealousy and vitality. The tango music under her reproaches adds wit; throughout a brilliant sound design by Acme Sound Partners (I could have sworn there were live musicians), and original music by Greg Pliska.

And despite her rants, Bergl pulls on our heartstrings when she says,

“But I think him better than I say.”

As Luciana, Adriana’s unmarried  sister, Heidi Schreck shows humor and passion when she has to deal with her sister’s husband’s sudden declaration of love for her. Of course, she thinks he’s just gone around the bend, but she lets us see the sister’s glee, too. When she figures out the truth, she plops one on the visiting Antipholus’ lips, both satisfying and totally in character.

The Comedy of Errors, The Public Theater

Heidi Schreck and Emily Bergl, ©Joan Marcus

Toni Leslie James’  gorgeous forties costumes, particularly the dresses for the women, are eye-candy.

One of the nicest things about the production was that it seemed as though the cast were having a great time, too.

The “spherical woman” bit comes about because Dromio of Syracuse has to fend off the attentions of the kitchen wench who loves Dromio of Ephesus. The two befuddled boys of Syracuse (Yep, the musical “The Boys of Syracuse” was also based on Plautus’ bauble) have a little comedy break when they compare her to a globe. She’s so fat she’s spherical, you see.

De’Adre Aziza, as a courtesan who consoles the local Antipholus when his wife, from his perspective, bizarrely locks him out, spiritedly struts her stuff.

But then, of course, there’s Linklater. By turns outraged, put-upon, sneaky, incredulous, in love, he keeps the stakes high as both twins, and keeps them both distinct without making one good and one bad. He sums up everything that happens in one glorious, clear rant, never taking a breath, and winning enthusiastic applause.

I did wonder how the heck they were going to manage the final scene when all is revealed. And they managed it.

Everything ends happily, of course, and the reunion between the Abbess (Becky Ann Baker, commanding and comforting at once) and Egeon

had the whole audience sympathetically sighing.

Making four out of two actors is a bit of theatrical sleight-of-hand. We can figure it out, of course, but that only makes the illusion more fun. For a moment, we’re like the people in Ephesus, and delighted to be confused.

The cast of "The Comedy of Errors," ©Joan Marcus

The cast of “The Comedy of Errors,” ©Joan Marcus

The Comedy of Errors runs in the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, near 81st Street and Central Park West, (212) 539-8750, shakespeareinthepark.org. Through June 30.

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