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The Comedy of Errors

A Comedy of Errors in
(Looney) Tune with Its Times

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Saturday, January 29, 2011, Seats C– 7&8 (center stalls)
Actors' Renaissance Season

Some Shakespeare cynics dismiss this play as a shallow farce that only folk of common taste can delight in. The more devout Shakespeare scholars find thematic treasures in what they assure us is a true comedy, and they generally berate productions that rely on more funny stage business than Shakespeare's nuances.

John Harrell as Antiphous, fist raised and holding the ear of Tyler Moss as Dromio: Harrell in vest and tie with a "Hi I Am Prisoner" convention badge, Dromio in red suspenders, bowtie, and multi-color stocking on his right arm
Tyler Moss as Dromio gets a beating from John Harrell's Antipholus in A Comedy of Errors at the Blackfriars Playhouse. The two actors engaged in a slow-motion sequence that highlighted this cartoonish production of the play. Photo by Tommy Thompson, American Shakespeare Center.

Seeing the play performed as part of the Actors' Renaissance Season at the Blackfriars—where the actors without a director mount the play on a few days of rehearsal—gives us the best sense of how to place this play because it comes closest to exemplifying the conditions for which Shakespeare wrote it. And it's entirely possible that he wrote it specifically for the occasion that the play is first mentioned, as entertainment for the Gray's Inn Christmas festival in 1594 (Shakespeare's company may also have performed the play for Queen Elizabeth the night before). If Gray's Inn was the play's first performance, Shakespeare had been charged with writing a play for a bunch of scholarly—but drunk—law students (a play that might also have needed to appeal to a royal court audience as well as, later, the crowds at the public theater). Thus, he rewrote a well-known Roman play but doubled the errors by adding a second pair of twins, threw in some references to Saint Paul's letters to the Ephesians as well as some legalese quibbling, and kept the action to just over 90 minutes. He gave the individual parts to his players and the result was. …

Well, perhaps what we saw in this production: an Egeon (Benjamin Curns) in serious pathos speaking grand verse, an Adriana (Sarah Fallon) discoursing on matters of matrimony while trying to contain her jealous rages, and the rest all modern-dress slapstick. Come on, scholars! This play is an extended Abbot and Costello routine, a Second City sequence of skits, a Loony Tunes cartoon with Ralph Wolf and Wile E. Coyote as the Dromios.

At times, the ASC troupe resembled cartoons. Gregory Jon Phelps as Dromio of Syracuse at one point popped his head out from his shoulders after a smackdown from Antipholus. In the gate scene, Antopholus' arm seemingly stretched 10 feet to grab Dromio's throat. Dr. Pinch (Jeremiah Davis), instead of being the zany manic of lore, was a stoic prelate (not at all as Antipholus later describes him), but when he called for help three Blutoish fiends in monksware stomped onto the stage to bind Antipholus and Dromio. Allison Glenzer, meanwhile, played Luce/Nell exactly as Dromio later describes her—complete with the greasy, sweat-soaked face—so that we couldn't help laughing every time Dromio mentions her. Glenzer also played the Abbess as a ruler-wielding nun who literally reveals herself as Emilia to Egeon like Jessica coming on to Roger Rabbit.

The great tour de force moment in this production was the slow-motion beating of Dromio of Ephesus (Tyler Moss) by Antipholus of Ephesus (John Harrell). As Moss rambled on in a soliloquy about his lifetime of beatings—a speech totally lost amid the audience's non-stop laughter—Harrell was nothing short of balletic in his slo-mo rage-filled whipping, all while, to the side, Jeremy West as the Officer calmly ate a donut, also in slow motion.

Scholars may cringe, but we'll take our Shakespeare with such gut-busting moments alongside Curns' and Fallons' majestic portrayals in iambic pentameter. I am certain, after seeing this production, that the original audience of drunken law students and Queen Elizabeth were equally pleased.

Eric Minton
April 25, 2009

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