Dallas — Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors—his first comedy—quite early in his career and it shows. Among its many shortcomings, the too-strong adherence on Roman farcical sources and outdated (even for the Bard) Elizabethan puns make it difficult to be taken too seriously. In an earlier review of this same play produced by Trinity Shakespeare Festival, I mentioned that it is easy to dismiss this trifle, despite its many signposts of impending greatness, as a tad too juvenile. But if given the right situation of director, actors, and venue it could still titillate. The Junior Players hits all of those elements and then some in their zany and inspired production of the play.
Director Valerie Hauss-Smith works with TSF for their summer seasons and methinks she has learned from their recent rare misstep with their own version of the comedy. Her bold concept for this show is “based on the idea that this is Shakespeare’s only true farce, with many elements of clowning and slapstick.” Placing the action in a 1920s Charlie Chaplin-themed world with many stylistic nods (perfect black-and-white influenced costumes by Bruce R. Coleman) to the silent movie era fulfills that vision and allows the actors (25 teens from local high schools) to really ham it up to the hilt. The genius of Hauss-Smith’s vision lies in her decision to embrace the play’s inherent silliness yet balancing it with real pathos.
That crucial sadness begins when the aged Aegeon (Eliza Palter) recounts his tale of loss and woe to the Duke of Ephesus (an impressively regal Kristin Raveneau). The Syracusan Aegeon lost his son, Antipholus of Syracuse (Austin Short) after losing his other son, the identical twin Antipholus of Ephesus (Tom Mizell), and his wife and mother of the boys, Aemilia (Leah Bell). A second pair of identical twins, Dromio of Ephesus (Nicholas Mayfield) and Dromio of Syracuse (Dante Flores) attend the two Antipholus masters respectively. This all sounds a lot more complicated than it really is onstage and kudos to Hauss-Smith and company for keeping it all straight.
More about those silent movie flourishes that work so well: the black-and-white makeup touches, the fancy placards to announce changes in the action, a plinky piano score (sound design by Marco Salinas), and even a hilarious Keystone Cops chase scene. There is also a nifty meta-theatrical framing of what is happening onstage as being part of a larger movie. A director (Joan Milburn) and cameraman (Marcelino Vazquez) watch the action with the audience and we almost forget about them until Milburn yells “cut” or “action” into a huge megaphone.
I am not usually a fan of joke- and pun-explaining gestures and signaling in Shakespeare, but this kind of acting works well given the stylized milieu of the silent era. The two Dromios use this method the most and are quite effective as both Mayfield and Flores (a real star in the making) are gifted physical actors. The rest of the cast make up a true ensemble and all subscribe to the same nimble-footed earnestness that propels the show.
Many have said that The Comedy of Errors is mercifully Shakespeare’s shortest play; however, if they saw the Junior Players’ version they would leave wanting much, much more.