THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

By William Shakespeare (St. Louis Shakespeare Company)

What is often said to be William Shakespeare's earliest comedy, The Comedy of Errors, is receiving a sprightly and colorful production at the Grandel Theatre. Its plot is at least as old as its source, Plautus' Latin play Menaechmi, wherein identical twin brothers, separated at birth, stroll about a city as young adults, being mistaken for one another with puzzling, painful results for them but laughter for the audience. Shakespeare's identical twins, each named Antipholus, have twin brothers, each named Dromio, as slaves, each as ignorant of the other as their masters are of each other. For melodrama, Shakespeare supplies the young masters' father, Egeon, whose very presence in the city of Ephesus is enough to earn him a death sentence, suspended for 24 hours so the old man can find his son(s) to ransom him.

The plot involving old father's sentencing and execution does little more than frame the larks of mistaken identity. The Antipholus who lives in Ephesus is married to Adriana (Jennifer Worth) — loving enough but a bit of a shrew, so much of the goofing involves her mistaking the other Antipholus, who comes from Syracuse, for her husband. He instead falls in love with her pretty but much nicer sister, Luciana (Stephanie Strohman). The two slaves, the Dromio boys, have their ups and downs as well, for most of the physical comedy involves the beatings each receives from one Antipholus or the other for supposed mistakes the other has actually made. There's even a nonsinging fat lady, Luce (Diane Hartke), who's not a lady but a scullery maid married to Dromio of Ephesus. She amorously assaults the Syracusan Dromio, who doesn't care for fat. It's low, crude humor indeed, as are the fart jokes (which used to be taboo but aren't anymore — they are, for instance, a staple of Garrison Keillor's humor), cuckold jokes, almost literal slapstick physical humor, and so on. The Comedy of Errors is a play for boys, and even a 6-year-old would love almost everything but the love stuff. Fortunately for Shakespeare, the bit of boy in everyone makes the lowest-common-denominator tomfoolery amusing to all but the most prissy.

Because two sets of 23-year-old identical male twin actors are scarce, for the audience to see identical twins involves willing suspension of disbelief produced by a cast that simply does not acknowledge any differences between the actors playing the Antipholuses and Dromios. The costume designer must provide two sets of vivid costumes for each set of twins. The actors portraying them might also agree on some similar gestures, poses and so on to further the illusion of absolute similarity. The actors who play the twins — John Spernoga (Antipholus of Ephesus), Jason Cannon (Antipholus of Syracuse), Paul Pagano (Dromio of Ephesus) and A.J. Triano (Dromio of Syracuse) — do not really re-semble one another and did not establish similarities of action. The other characters of the play, however, come through splendidly in creating the illusion of the two sets of identical twins. Teresa Doggett's costumes, especially for the Dromios, are quite distinctive. In one nice touch, each Dromio has an identical patch on a pant leg. Instead of the twins' having the patches on the same leg, however, one has the right leg patched, the other the left, and thus they become, indeed, as one of them remarks, mirror images of one another. Clever Ms. Doggett! Shakespeare's text makes both sets of brothers psychologically different. One Antipholus is deep, even melancholy; the other is a bit shallow and pompous. One Dromio clowns to cheer up his sad master; the other's clowning is more circumstantial. This is a university-classroom observation, however, unless directors and actors want to make something of it, which they didn't in this production.

There are other things director Cathy Hartenstein did or didn't do. She changed the sex of the Duke of Ephesus, for instance, which is OK, but she changed the character's personality as well. Rosemary Christian is more a strict but understanding school principal — an Our Miss Brooks — than a political ruler. This disturbs the urgency of Egeon's plight. Angelo, a male goldsmith, becomes Angela, a woman, but Roxane Vafi makes her salty and assertive enough to be credible. Marcia LaCour-Little's courtesan might be somewhat more a slut and less a bourgeois businessperson. One character, Dr. Pinch, appeared onstage but in neither the program's list of characters and the actors playing them nor the summary of the plot.

Dr. Pinch's anonymity is bothersome to someone with a little knowledge of Shakespeare, because some of the play's best invective is directed toward him. More important, he is "a schoolmaster and a conjurer" who tries to cure the supposed madness of Antipholus of Ephesus, thus eerily anticipating the madness thrust upon Malvolio and Feste's impersonation of his physician in Twelfth Night, both in action and speech. But though The Comedy of Errors is shot through with prefigurements of later plays, what is absent throughout is Shakespeare's facility with the English language and his unique ability to render it in iambic pentameter.

Actors who can speak the verse stumble around within the play trying to find a beat that just is not there. American actors' inability to speak Shakespeare's verse is, in The Comedy of Errors, not a handicap but an asset. Finally, the Grandel Theatre is a terrible place to listen to anything, especially speech, but if you sit close to the stage, you can generally make out the words. The cast of this production sounds pretty good if you are sitting in the first or second row, and laughter from farther back indicated that the actors were projecting their voices well, helping make this a quite acceptable production of a cheerful and charming if obviously journeyman-quality play.

 
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