The Comedy of Errors is not exactly known for being the most intellectually rigorous member of the Shakespeare canon, even though scholars, perhaps bored with several centuries of excessive analysis of the heavyweight plays, now project layers of new meaning onto the work.
But it’s a tall order. The Comedy of Errors has a plot so preposterous that it’s hard to interpret as anything but a fun, 16th-century equivalent of an Adam Sandler movie. Sure, there’s a token love story and some minor suspense, but the majority of the play is simple comedy that requires belief in some pretty unbelievable premises for it to work.
Yet the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (which, since only two of the four plays in this year’s program are by the Bard, might as well be called the “Colorado Contemporary Theater Festival”) tackles the play admirably, making the ridiculous moments shine and adding just enough flourishes to keep the play fresh for Shakespeare vets.
The story begins with the Duke of Ephesus (Chris Kendall) sentencing Syracusan merchant Egeon (Sam Sandoe) to death, that being the punishment for a Syracusan merchant trespassing in Ephesus. But when the court learns of the heart-wrenching circumstances that led Egeon to Ephesus, it grants him an extra day to come up with the money to pay a fine or be executed.
Egeon’s ridiculous tale, told in a ridiculous way with ridiculous details, goes something like this: Years back, his wife gave birth to twin boys. At the same time, a poorer woman also begat twins, and the wealthy Egeon purchased them as slaves for his sons. The new family of six set sail, and while at sea, their boat sank, and father, son and slave and mother, son and slave found themselves clinging to opposite sides of a mast salvaged from the boat. The clouds part, and two ships appear, both speedily heading towards the marooned family. But fate intervenes, and the mast hits a mighty rock, splitting the mast in twain and sending mother and father onto different ships. Egeon renames his remaining son Antipholus, after the lost one, and the same goes for the slave.
Egeon’s tale is one of the longest introductions in the canon, and it is notoriously hard to perform. The play’s co-directors, Daniel Stein and Carolyn Howarth, do an admirable job of directing the cast during the speech, which includes a rather silly, soap-opera style pause when Egeon pauses in the middle of the story and proclaims out of anguish, “O, let me say no more!” but then quickly resumes at the urging of his captivated audience.
The play continues as Egeon’s son, Antipholus of Syracuse (Josh Robinson), arrives in Ephesus with his slave, Dromio (Gary Wright). The pair’s twin brothers happen to live in Ephesus, and a hilarious series of mistaken identities ensues.
The production includes some nice touches to the story, such as ensemble members dressed as fish, who grab props and assemble in various poses during the play, acting as human set pieces. Both Dromios suffer constant beatings as they mistake their master’s doppelganger for the real thing, and instead of actually hitting them, the Antipholi smack the air in front of their slaves with blue, stuffed fish, while a cast member stands in the background using props to make loud slapping noises. The CSF gets meta here, as eventually the props get into the hands of cast members, who use them to inflict pain on others, stuffed fish be damned.
Tom Coiner is particularly hilarious as Dromio of Ephesus, giving the first mistaken-identity scene great charm. Robinson and Wright have great chemistry together, as do Coiner and Stephen Weitz, who plays Antipholus of Ephesus. Karen Slack, as Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, plays her screeching, besotted and befuddled character with stellar comedic timing and twitchy, dangerous eyes, and she damn near steals the first half of the play.
The second half — well, “devolves” is too harsh a word — transforms into almost purely physical comedy, and though well-choreographed, it’s not nearly as funny as intended. It’s as if the directors didn’t trust Shakespeare’s words alone to carry the play, instead relying on slapstick, props and fart jokes. Call me an idealist, but I believe modern audiences can still derive pleasure from the exquisite lines of the Bard.
Nevertheless, the CSF does great justice to The Comedy of Errors, and it’s a great introductory show for a friend or loved one unconvinced of Shakespeare’s greatness.