Reviewed by Will Stackman
Based on Plautus' Roman farce "The Twin Menaechmi", which also served as the inspiration for Rodgers & Hart's "The Boys from Syracuse", "The Comedy of Errors" (1593) is usually considered a mere piece of fluff, devoid of any higher meaning. The Publick Theatre's Artistic director Diego Arciniegas suggests, though not in a program note, that the outline of the action also follows St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians. Whatever the value of this subtle interpretation, it doesn't interfere with the farce, which this summer's company, most of whom also appear in "Arcadia," handle with dispatch. The weekly rotation of the two shows starts in August. The key to any production of this grandfather of mistaken identity plays is the four actors playing the two sets of twins. With the help of careful modern dress, up-and-coming leading men Lewis Wheeler and Bill Mootos are quite believable as the twin Antipholus'. Steven Libby and Harry Lacoste are equally so as the twin Dromios, the put-upon servants of these two passionate young men. Sharp eyed members of the audience however, will be able to remember who's who by checking their footware.
The play starts off on an appropriately sombre note as Nigel Gore, in full round tones, recounts the sad tale of Egeon, a hapless merchant from Syracuse who's wandered into the enemy territory of Ephesus in search of his lost twin sons. He's been condemned to death unless he can pay a substantial fine. Bill Gardiner is sympathetic as Duke Solinus, but the law's the law, at least at the beginning of the play. The two pairs of twins show up in short order, and various plot elements set confusion in motion, as the two masters are mistaken for one another, and indeed, can't tell their own servants apart. Enter the ladies. Carolyn Lawton, dressed like a Fellini heroine and constantly smoking, is Adriana, the rich wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, angry because he hasn't shown up for supper. Her sister, Luciana, played by Joy Lamberton , is more understanding. A quick interchange of rhymed couplets defines this sparkling pair. When Antipholus of Syracuse shows up, though thoroughly confused by Adriana's attention, he allows himself be led in to supper--and perhaps more--since his supposed spouse directs that the door be locked and his Dromio serve as the porter so they won't be disturbed.
Naturally her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, shows up and is refused admission in a scene of rapid-fire word-play between the Dromio from Syracuse within--who doesn't belong there--and the Dromio from Ephesus without, who does. The real husband finally goes to supper, instructing Angelo the goldsmith, played by burly Dan Mickle, to bring a rich chain he's had made for his wife to an inn where they'll have a sportive supper with a courtesan. The plot has not only thickened; the audience might need a score card in order to make it to the denouement in Act. V. The first twist comes when Antipholus of Syracuse appears trying to woo Luciana, being somewhat put off by Adriana's demeanor. She's tempted of course, but not enough to step out of bounds with her sister's husband. Both Lamberton and Wheeler have a lot of fun with this scene. The resemblance of this plot to romantic Italian movies from several decades ago justifies costume designer Rafael Jean's choices, with both sisters in crinolines and both young men in sharp hats, sunglasses and open-necked shirts. This being a traditional comedy, Luciana does wind up with the right Antipholus, of course. The shaven headed Dromios get baggy shorts and tan cabbies caps, not to mention identical shoulderbags which distinguish them nicely from the rest of the cast. Libby and Lacoste earn the right to their comic exit at the very end, nicely underscoring the focus of the play on reconciliation.
Director Arciniegas keeps the ensemble under control, and as the action whirls to a close, brings in veteran character actor Harold Withee, as Dr. Pinch, who attempts to exorcise the Antipholus'--serially--and his associate Susanne Nitter as the Abbess for the unlikely happy ending. There's a touch of midsummer madness to everyone's behavior, quite appropriate to this steamy summer. This might not be a breakthrough production of William Shakespeare's take on this ancient farce, but the physical humor is effective, everyone handles the rhymed verse comfortably, and the pace is seldom less than breakneck, given the distance involved in some of the entrances and crossovers. It will be interesting to see what the Young Company, who've been shadowing this show in rehearsal, do for their public presentation of the play in mid-August. Nathaniel McIntyre, Eric Hamel, and Devon Jencks, veteran Publick Theatre performers, are this year's instructors.