While it is true that I am partial to Shakespeare plays that end with a pile of dead bodies on stage, Summerfest's production of The Comedy of Errors has caused me to reexamine the genius of The Bard’s comedies.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed many of Shakespeare’s comedies, finding them amusing, playful and yes, funny. But no comedy has ever made me -- and my fellow audience members surrounding me -- guffaw quite so heartily, with laughter that comes straight from the gut. Director Bob Singleton’s vision of The Comedy of Errors, combined with the more streamlined scale of the play, makes it a highly accessible and highly entertaining show.
Singleton’s wildly eclectic, fast-paced version of Shakespeare’s first comedy is a wacky mish mash of comedic styles from across the ages; Elizabethan humor meets Monty Python meets the Three Stooges meets Lucille Ball meets about a dozen or more other homages (some subtle, some overt) to comedic legends.
Look to costume designer Robin Kunkel Code’s work for clues to the comedic motif of each character. Set in modern dress, with Jerome Wills’ scenic design hearkening to more classical times, the eclecticism of design elements compliments the characters.
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This may sound a bit too choppy, a bit all over the place, but it is not, thanks largely to the actors’ deft wielding of the material and palpable investment in this wacky world Singleton and his ensemble cast have created, but also thanks to the pared down nature of the material itself.
Widely believed to be Shakespeare’s first comedy, The Comedy of Errors is extremely simple when compared to Shakespeare’s later, more popular comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Two sets of twins are separated by a shipwreck at a young age, growing up without knowledge of the other in separate towns. Antipholus and his servant Dromio of Syracuse and Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus. Their father, of Syracuse, is threatened with a beheading for entering Ephesus the same day that Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse arrive in Ephesus, not knowing that their identical counterparts live there. That’s when the hijinks ensue, with the twins getting mixed up and interwoven into one another’s lives unaware of the existence of the other. There are few subplots beyond these hijinks and only a few characters to keep track of, which is easy to do thanks to each cast member’s clearly defined roles.
It would be tempting to play the characters as caricatures. But the actors fully realize their characters, imbuing them with hilarious mannerisms and comedic qualities that are punctuated by the physical delivery of slapstick goofiness. Cody Taylor’s double duty as the eccentric Duke of Ephesus and Nell, the wife of Dromio of Ephesus, is just one example of how characters are comprised of layered comedic influences. His rock and roll homage to Ephesus’ second-act potential beheading wryly critiques the element of public spectacle that used to be prevalent at public executions. His portrayal of the rotund, housecoat and curler-sporting wife of Dromio reminded me of Benny Hill episodes as he, or she, rather, raced around the stage attempting to romance the wrong Dromio.To our contemporary sensibilities, the show almost feels like a sitcom. And it's over almost as quick as one, too, clocking in at under two hours.
Bottom line, Singleton’s vision (and the cast and crew’s successful execution of it), makes the show hyper accessible and escape-your-life funny. And Shakespeare’s more streamlined material makes it easily digestible. To anyone wondering how to make Shakespeare relatable to mainstream modern audiences -- not just theater lovers -- this is how it’s done.