Founded in 1991 by producing artistic director Peter Meineck, Aquila is on a mission to rescue respected theatrical texts from overly respectful productions. With a roster of classically trained British and North American actors, the troupe tours several months each year, performing in all kinds of venues. It is also the professional company in residence at New York University's Center for Ancient Studies and has recently presented Manhattan engagements of The Iliad: Book One and Julius Caesar. But, as last summer's presto-tempo Much Ado About Nothing proved, Aquila--with small casts making split-second role changes--is at its best in farce and high-energy physical comedy.
The Comedy of Errors is an early work, possibly the earliest in Shakespeare's canon. It's the Bard's antic variation on The Menaechmi by the Roman playwright Plautus. The most farcical of Shakespeare's stage works, this Comedy is often dismissed as a fledgling effort. But that's unfair, for it contains a fair measure of appealing verse, as well as arresting themes--displacement, familial reunion, and the reconciling power of romantic love, for instance--that presage the later comedies. With its bawdy humor, puns, and slapstick, the text would seem to invite the rough-and-tumble Aquila treatment.
Like the The Menaechmi, the play concerns a man who strays into Ephesus, where his long-lost identical (and identically named) twin is a prominent citizen. The visitor, Antipholus of Syracuse, is unaware that he even has a twin, and the ensuing mix-ups lead him to believe that Ephesus is a mysterious and possibly bewitched place. Meanwhile, the citizens of Ephesus, assuming that this is the Antipholus they know, regard his seemingly inappropriate responses as evidence of insanity. Shakespeare ups the ante on Plautus by adding a second set of long-separated twins, Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse, who are the slaves of the respective Antipholuses. The play includes sundry other non-Plautine plot elements, including a law that makes being Syracusan in Ephesus a capital offense--not to mention non-Plautine characters like the Antipholuses' father, who has been arraigned for said crime.
In Aquila's Comedy of Errors, an ensemble of seven (three men and four women) covers upwards of 20 roles. Mark Saturno (the Antipholuses) and Louis Butelli (the Dromios) bear the production's heaviest demands, practically outrunning the clock as they switch from role to role without causing any unintended syncopation in the evening's staccato rhythm. Among the rest of the cast, Lisa Carter, Mira Kingsley, Alex Web, and Mark Cameron Pow are well matched in talent, technique, and sheer speed. Celestina Villanueva is noteworthy in a variety of comic turns which might be described as "all the other women in town."
As impressive as the ensemble is, Butelli's low-comedy Dromios shine with special brightness. If any actor can defy the laws of physics and the limitations of physiology, Butelli's the guy. As Dogberry, Don John, and the dotty friar in Much Ado, he demonstrated an ability to modify posture, carriage, and voice in odd, unpredictable ways to effect quicksilver transformations from one role to another. In the current show, costumed like the elfin TinTin, this comic dynamo switches personae so swiftly and so completely that one almost expects both Dromios eventally to appear on stage at once and play a scene together.
Butelli's innovative, almost manic performance is entirely representative of Aquila's complement of youthful, athletic actors. If Comedy of Errors is ultimately a letdown after the company's Much Ado (and especially after its Cyrano de Bergerac, in which eight actors handled all 50 of Rostand's characters), that's not because there's less talent or skill on stage this time around. Rather, it's because the Comedy is, in some ways, too predictable a target for the guerrilla-Aquila approach. As a result, there's little room for surprise. Most arresting in the prior productions cited above was the way Aquila's actors, with their emphasis on low humor and physicality, worked against the grain of Rostand's melodramatic grandeur and Shakespeare's heartfelt verse. If, from time to time, the actors' wacky exuberance gave short shrift to the playwrights, the overall productions nonetheless preserved what is most human and humane in Rostand and the Bard. The result was deep enough and sufficiently insightful to be dramatically satisfying. With this Comedy of Errors, there's not much depth; but the action is so fleet that spectators, unable to fend off so many blows to their funny bones, are likely to surrender to the potent Aquila charm.