The Comedy of Errors

The Public Theater’s 2013 Shakespeare in the Park season opens with Daniel Sullivan’s delightful 90-minute revival of this slapstick comedy, starring the masterful pair Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

Rachel McMullin, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Hamish Linklater and Emily Bergl in <i>The Comedy of Errors</i>
Rachel McMullin, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Hamish Linklater and Emily Bergl in The Comedy of Errors
(© Joan Marcus)

Is there a better contemporary American director of Shakespeare than Daniel Sullivan? This is the question we, as audience members, pose summer after summer upon departing Central Park’s bucolic Delacorte Theater after seeing one of Sullivan’s Shakespeare in the Park productions. Twelfth Night starring Anne Hathaway, Audra McDonald, and Raúl Esparza? Most wonderful! The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino and Lily Rabe? Worthy of a Broadway transfer, which happened. Not even falling through a trap door and fracturing four ribs could stop his definitive Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now, we have Sullivan’s rollicking Comedy of Errors, a revival so delicious I would have stuck around far longer than its 90 minutes to continue watching.

Best known as the inspiration for Rodgers and Hart’s 1938 musical The Boys from Syracuse, and itself inspired by the Roman playwright Plautus’ Menaechmi and Amphitryon, The Comedy of Errors is not only Shakespeare’s shortest play, coming in at fewer than 1800 lines, but only one of two that follows the Aristotelian unities of action, time, and place. There’s one plot, one (main) location, a day-long time span, and two sets of identical twin brothers who happen to be in the same town at the exact same time.

The two sets of brothers are Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus (both played by Hamish Linklater), separated at birth in a shipwreck along with their servants, both named Dromio (both played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson). The town is Ephesus, in this production a small city in upstate New York circa the late 1930s. It’s a community governed by comical Runyonesque gangsters where swing dancers roam freely through the streets. This country mouse versus city mouse tale finds the Syracusian Antipholus and Dromio searching for their long-lost brothers, the Ephesian pair, and inadvertently wreaking havoc on each other’s lives.

It’s not traditional to cast all four brothers with the same two actors, however it’s certainly not unheard of either. In Sullivan’s shtick-driven, roly-poly staging, master clowns are needed at the forefront, and with Shakespeare in the Park mainstays Linklater and Ferguson leading the company, it has that in spades. They talk the talk and fall the falls with the best of them, and most importantly they’ve managed to derive four distinct characters between them, with distinct vocal patterns and physicality. With the extremely subtle help of ace costumer Toni-Leslie James, it’s also very easy to keep track of who is whom — though only if you pay close attention to the tiniest of details.

Yet the entire company and creative team, New York stage masters all, is sheer perfection. How fun it is to watch very contemporary actresses like Heidi Schreck and Emily Bergl show off their natural adeptness for both the Bard’s verse and somersaults. (Bergl, as the Ephesian Antipholus’ shrewish wife, Adriana, is particularly impressive delivering her big monologue, “Ay, ay Antipholus…”) Musical vets De’Adre Aziza (as the siren-singing Courtesan) and Robert Creighton (as Angelo the goldsmith) prove to be an impressive pair of comic scene-stealers. And elder statespeople like Jonathan Hadary, Skipp Sudduth, and Becky Ann Baker add a touch of gravitas to the proceedings. Meanwhile, scenic designer John Lee Beatty has cooked up a lovely cartoon village on three turntables, while choreographer Mimi Lieber has created some first-rate dances for ensemble members Brian T. Lawson, Jessica Wu, Bryan Langlitz, Adrienne Weidert, Michael McArthur, and Rachel McMullan.

If there’s one point (and there’s only one) where the production doesn’t entirely measure up, it’s at the very end, where the four brothers come face to face. With all the preceding inspired and madcap mayhem, you’d think Sullivan would have figured out a zanier way of doing things. Even so, this production is nowhere near worthy of a frown.

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