Shakespeare is one of the most produced playwrights in the United States because, four centuries later, his plays still speak to our present condition. Truly, one wouldn't think that The Comedy of Errors (a show about two sets of identical twins separated in a shipwreck) would have much bearing on 21st-century Americans, but director Kwame Kwei-Armah (who helmed 2013's excellent Much Ado About Nothing) utterly refutes that notion with his simultaneously urgent and irreverent new production.
This 90-minute distillation of The Comedy of Errors is being produced under the auspices of the Public Theater's Mobile Shakespeare Unit, an extension of Joe Papp's original mission to make Shakespeare available to everyone. While those of us with time (but not necessarily money) can sit outside the Delacorte Theater for free tickets every summer, there are many New Yorkers who don't even have the ability to do that. That is true for the working poor and especially true for the incarcerated (who physically can't leave prison to wait in line for theater tickets). The Mobile Shakespeare Unit takes the show to them, touring 19 area recreation centers and prisons (of all security levels) before sitting down for three weeks at the Public's home on Astor Place. By bringing Shakespeare to the masses, wherever they might be, the Public Theater really is doing Dionysus' work.
In the case of The Comedy of Errors, it is particularly exciting work evoking important national themes while maintaining a lighthearted tone. Could there be a better combo? The story follows Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus (both played by Bernardo Cubría), identical twins separated at a sea during a terrible squall. Their twin servants (both named Dromio and both played by the ham-tastic Lucas Caleb Rooney) were also separated. One Antipholus-and-Dromio pair ends up in humble Syracuse, while the other ends up in the far richer Ephesus. Their father, Egeon (David Ryan Smith), goes in search of the two in Ephesus, where he is immediately detained by the Duchess Solina (Zuzanna Szadkowski). She doesn't take kindly to illegal Syracusans.
The production is staged in the round, with the border between Ephesus and Syracuse drawn through the center of Moria Sine Clinton's effectively spare set. We watch Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse cross the border in the earliest moments of the play: They're also searching for their long-lost brothers. Clinton (who also designed the costumes with great efficacy) distinguishes the twins through a hat trick: The boys from Syracuse wear baseball caps (and occasionally lapse into Spanish) while the Ephesians wear cowboy hats and speak with a Texas twang. It's perfectly clear to the audience, but never to the people of Ephesus, including the wealthier Antipholus' wife, Adriana (Christina Pumariega), and her Bible-thumping sister Luciana (a delightfully prissy Flor De Liz Perez). Mistaken identity leads to accusations of adultery, false arrest, and demonic possession.
Under Kwei-Armah's limber and unpretentious direction, the contrivance of the plot really works. The bawdiness and slapstick humor of the script is turned up to a ten, with musician Matt Citron providing sound effects for the cartoon violence as if he were playing in a live Marx Brothers film. Some viewers might find it excessive, but such over-the-top humor really is the essence of Shakespeare playing to the groundlings; it absolutely has a place in the modern performance of his work.
Szadowski particularly stands out for her uninhibited portrayal of a crass and randy courtesan who would put your average Melissa McCarthy character to shame. She also memorably embodies the Duchess of Ephesus (who takes the place of the Duke in this production), here made into a nativist politician. She wears a skirt suit and a baseball cap that reads, "Make Ephesus Great Again."
With the rancor against undocumented immigrants reaching a fever pitch during this election cycle, the 11 million estimated to be living in the United States would certainly count as an underserved community (according to Amnesty International, 30,000 wake up in detention on any given day). By setting The Comedy of Errors on the U.S.-Mexican border, Kwei-Armah brings the themes of this 421-year-old play into stark relief: political boundaries and regional disparity are still with us. And considering the thousands of migrants presently braving the Mediterranean in an effort to reach the safety of Europe, shipwrecks in that part of the world remain tragically common. Both in its content and producing strategy, the Mobile Shakespeare Unit is keeping Shakespeare's canon in its rightful place as undeniably populist theater.