The Comedy of Errors
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.
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.