When I took a Shakespeare class in college, The Comedy of Errors was the first play we read. I remember gearing up, collecting all my English major prowess, ready to tackle probably the best writer of the English language.
Well, Comedy of Errors ain’t no Hamlet. This fact can be a little frustrating (especially if you dived into the play expecting roaring soliloquies and poignant cultural critique) but for the most part, it’s amazingly refreshing. Errors pretty much allows you to sit back and enjoy the ride, which comes complete with lots of laughs and a happy ending.
Shakespeare in the Park’s Errors is perfectly cast. I’ve only seen Hamish Linklater in three roles but those three have shown me what a versatile and engaging actor he is. Jesse Tyler Ferguson also gets back to his theater roots, displaying his great comedic timing, nuanced delivery, and altogether fun presence (Let me take this moment to gloat that I saw 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for my birthday several years ago and then saw JTF in a theater lobby a few months ago and I said hi and told him that he was awesome and he was really kind and okay I’m done now).
Together, Linklater and Ferguson have excellent chemistry as Antipholus and Dromio… or should I say, Antipholi and Dromios. You see, they play sets of twins– one from the play’s setting, Ephesus, and the other from nearby Syracuse. The Antipholi were separated in a shipwreck, along with their servants the Dromios. Antipholus of Syracuse arrives at Ephesus with his Dromio to search for his Ephesian brother. The Syracuse set are usually played as well-mannered and more civilized than their Ephesian counterparts, and this production plays along with the trope. It’s quite fun to see both actor get to play aristocrats as well as seedy bullies in the same play.
It also means that the duo are on stage for nearly the whole play. Scene changes are aided by swing dance interludes, some clever trap doors, and presumably a lot of running on Linklater’s and Ferguson’s parts.
While I praise the acting, I felt that there were a lot of strange choices in the show that were probably done with comedic intent but fell a bit flat. Every five or so minutes there would be a joke that felt stale, out-of-place, or just a bit uncomfortable to watch. Take for example, Egeon’s puppet and boat shtick during his expository monologue. As he describes his sons’ separation, he pulls out four dolls and a ship mast from his briefcase, and virtually acts out the shipwreck with puppets. I mean, I guess it was cute? The only way I felt it was funny was in a self-referential way– Egeon’s LONG monologue is notorious as evidence that Shakespeare was still getting the hang of things in this early work. Thus, a puppet show might have been kind of like saying “Yea, we know this bit is long and boring and we don’t really know what else to do with it *shake fist at Shakespeare*” But honestly, you’re Shakespeare in the Park. AND you’ve got Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson waiting in the wings to come out which you guys do a puppet show? And you couldn’t figure out a more clever or creative way to get this done?
There are other jokes and gags that just felt inappropriate or unfunny. The gorgeous De’Andre Aziza has her comedic talent wasted by relegating her to shaking her boobs and making funny faces behind a nun’s back. Huh? Even JTF and Linklater had some lines that never really found their mark, not particularly because of their delivery but because of mismatched environments or missed set-ups. There were a few moments throughout the play when the actors interrupted the script with more contemporary interjections, which could have been funny but instead felt like pandering to a supposedly text-savvy contemporary audience.
Oh, and guess what? When you have one actor playing two characters, what are you supposed to do when those two characters finally meet on stage in the last scene? If you’re the Public Theater, you do something clever, something witty, something self-referential and pointed. You DON’T have two random cast members fill in for the missing characters, keep their backs turned to the audience, and give all their lines to their counterparts so they don’t have to speak. Honestly, everyone in the audience is waiting to see what the Public will do when the brothers finally confront each other. We know there’s only one actor, that’s part of the marvel of the rest of the play. The choice to step around the falseness of the last scene and ignore it instead of confronting it head-on with some hilarious new possibility (Think something along the lines of the ‘fifth actor’ in The 39 Steps)– that choice kills the tone of the play’s ending. Errors’s ending is supposed to inspire brotherhood and community. Brotherhood is not trying to get away with having faceless, voiceless actors play parts that the audience knows don’t actually belong to them.
To end on a positive note, though, much of Errors does hit its mark. You’ve got kitchen appliances, demonic possessions, a faux-Freud psychologist, a fat lady being compared to a globe in an epic extended metaphor, some Python-esque running around, nuns with guns, mobsters recitating Shakespeare with accents from The Sopranos, and tons more. Not to mention a bright, revolving set that is almost as entrancing as the actors on stage.
P.S. Even though Errors is most likely the lightest of Shakespeare’s comedies, there’s a lot of interesting themes to look into. In my Shakespeare class, we looked at the play as a troubled reflection on a rapidly industrializing and mercantile Elizabethan London, where citizens are surrounded by strangeness and can’t seem to find their way in the world. Also, does anyone else see a similarity between Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw and Errors? Plot-wise they’re pretty goshdarn similar, minus the cross-dresssing, and the ending is pretty interesting if you consider the role of the family in restoring the social status quo. I totally don’t miss school, if you can’t tell.