The Comedy of Errors
What happens when you cross vaudeville with commedia dell'arte? You get a very funny take on A Comedy of Errors, as evidenced by the current production at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Directors Carolyn Howarth and Daniel Stein literally make the slapstick a character (along with some other sound effects); it's like having a foley artist as part of the live mix, adding a new comedic dimension to what is already a shamelessly ridiculous farce.
"Shakespearean scholars" may question the quality of this early work versus the great tragedies, but they miss the point: the genius that runs through the canon is here expressed purely for laughs, and this production milks all the opportunities.
|(L to R) Tom Coiner as Dromio of Ephesus|
and Gary Alan Wright as Dromio of Syracuse
Photo: Glenn Asakawa for CU Communications
At the heart of the guffaws is a double case of mistaken identity. That's right, there are two sets of identical twins, both separated near birth, and the relationship between the two sets—master and servant—is maintained for twenty-five years during their separation.1 One day, a shipwreck brings the disparate pairs back together, and all manner of hilarity and confusion ensues, some threatening the life and liberty of the principals.
To cut to the chase, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse (Josh Robinson and Gary Wright) land in Ephesus and get confused with Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus (Stephen Weitz and Tom Coiner). Wives, girlfriends, merchants, usurers, clergy, and ladies of the night are all baffled by the seemingly senseless behavior of the once thoughtful and dutiful Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, while the two pairs of twins are equally baffled by the claims of these folks, who confuse each individual with his twin. As in all classic comedy, the loose ends get tied up and the happy ending includes a marriage or two or three.
The performances are pitch perfect all around—with the two sets of twins moving easily between fourth wall ruminations and circumstantial immersion, but the farcical stage business and delightful design elements (Andrea Bechert) share equal billing. In addition to the clever vaudeville send ups and silly anachronisms (sumo wrestling and ninja lampoons, etc.), there are some elegant puppets and enough entrances, exits, gates, and windows to host simultaneous productions of Noises Off and Laugh In.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of The Comedy of Errors runs through August 11th in repertory with Romeo and Juliet, The Inspector General, and The Little Prince. 303-492-0554 or www.coloradoshakes.org.
1 There is plenty of ammunition to argue that the playwright was hyperbolizing biographical issues that involved the two sides of himself (Edward de Vere—Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse), his wife (Anne Cecil— etymologically speaking, Adriana and Luciana representing the "dark" and "light" side of the same woman), and his servant (Rowland Yorke—Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse).
As the Duke of Ephesus observes (Act 5, Scene 1) of the Antipholus twins:
One of these men is genius to the other:
And so of these, which is the natural man,
And which the spirit? Who deciphers them?
All of this was a somewhat lame excuse for de Vere's behavior toward his wife, Anne, whom he accused of adultery—a theme that runs throughout the canon, most prominently in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale.
Another autobiographical moment in the play comes when Antipholus of Ephesus tells Dromio of Ephesus to buy a rope and his servant responds:
I buy a thousand pound a year: I buy a rope.
This statement puzzled "Shakspere" (Stratfordian) scholars through the centuries, but to "Shake-speare" (Oxfordian) scholars it is a jest by the author making fun of the one thousand pound annuity paid to him by Queen Elizabeth that tied him to his desk while he wrote the history plays that his monarch used, along with the pulpit, for propaganda.
The commedia dell'arte style became familiar to de Vere during his time in Italy, particularly in Venice. Reference to specifics in this city, as well as (in decending order) Naples, Milan, Florence, Padu, and Verona total 176. Rome is mentioned almost 400 times, though mostly in the context of classical themes.