Fort Worth — The fact that The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s earliest comedy and briefest play, one might be tempted to discount the work as juvenile and not even close to later comedic masterpieces such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It or Twelfth Night. Although this play about mistaken identity madness contains seeds of future greatness, sadly, it is mostly right to discount it. That is not to say that in the right hands the play cannot titillate and entertain, but it requires a deft touch and the right cast and crew to pull it off. Trinity Shakespeare Festival makes a valiant attempt but is not quite there in this other half of their repertory season that includes The Tempest.
First-time TSF director Joel Ferrell is the Associate Artistic Director of The Dallas Theater Center, where has directed outstanding and critically-acclaimed fare including two of my favorites, Dividing the Estate and Cabaret. Ferrell is a supremely talented and visionary director and his work at Trinity is beautiful and ambitious; however, the execution here falls short.
The play is set in Ephesus, a classic center of Greek civilization and an important city in early Christianity, yet located in present-day Turkey. The set (Tristan Decker) resembles a busy street and Turkish bazaar with archways and domed towers. Jazz Age flappers, mustachioed toughs wearing fezzes and pinstriped suits (costumes by Lloyd Cracknell), as well as preps wearing boaters, bowties, knickers and waistcoats, inhabit these candy-colored environs.
The story, like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, is a bit complicated and convoluted. Aegeon (David Coffee) is a Syracusan merchant looking for his lost son, Antipholus of Syracuse (Richard Haratine) who in turn is looking for his erstwhile identical twin brother, Antipholus of Ephesus (Haratine) and lost mother, Emilia (Liz Mikel). To make matters more mirrored, two other identical twins, Dromio of Syracuse and Ephesus (Jakie Cabe) attend the brothers Antipholus. Much confusion and switcheroo hullabaloo hilarity ensue.
The opening scene finds Solinus (Chris Hury), Duke of Ephesus interrogating Aegeon for trespassing and sentencing him to die if he cannot raise 1,000 marks. Aegeon relates his sad story and gains a brief reprieve to find the money. Ferrell sees the scene as a single light bulb, gangster swagger, and cartoon drunken weepiness episode, which is funny, but this solemn situation should be dire enough to move the audience or else the comedy of the central acts loses its punch and contrast. The moving family reunion at the end can also appear, as it does here, tacked on if the play as a whole does not retain that initial sense of danger.
Shakespeare’s most immediate source material for The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’ Menaechmi, a Latin comedy rife with ridiculousness and slapstick. TSF’s production of the Bard’s play relies on the farcical with its preponderance of physical humor, constant movement, and miming and signaling of lines. All that breakneck peripatetic business is a feast for the eyes at first, but soon becomes exhausting.
Ferrell’s decision to have Haratine and Cabe play both sets of twins is a bit unconventional (I have never seen it in the many live versions I have attended) and has mixed results here. Although it is a quite an extraordinary feat for the actors, my impression is that it leaves audiences unfamiliar with the story in the dark for most of the play.
All that being said, there are many, many bright moments and the cast has enough boundless energy and talent to still please.
Coffee’s part is small, yet he is a joy to behold any time he is onstage. Haratine and Cabe playing two roles apiece should receive special medals for theatrical endurance and ingenious characterization. Lydia Mackay is a fierce delight as the harpy-like wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, and Amber Marie Flores brings the sizzle in her portrayal of Adriana’s sister.
In the end, it is too bad that Shakespeare’s shortest play feels too long. It is still a comedy, but one with too many errors.
» Click here to read Jan Farrington's interview with T.J. Walsh about this season's productions
» Click here to read M. Lance Lusk's review of The Tempest