The Comedy of Errors, which William Shakespeare wrote in 1594, is his shortest play by a significant margin, coming in at 1800 lines. It is a fast-paced zinger of a night’s entertainment, the sort that would have brought in some of London’s more lowbrow crowd. The story begins with a lengthy (and quirkily staged) introduction by Egeon (Jonathan Hadary), a merchant of Syracuse, who must defend his presence in Ephesus, a rival city to his own. Egeon explains that his twin sons were separated at birth, each in the company of their respective slaves (the two slaves were also twins). Now Egeon comes to Ephesus following the twin who remained with him, who went out into the world seeking his brother. When Antipholus of Syracuse (Hamish Linklater) and his man, Dromio of Syracuse (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), arrive in Ephesus, confusion with their counterparts, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, results in a farce that’s more slapstick than story, but pleasantly so.
That said, the Shakespeare in the Park production of said Comedy, which runs at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through June 30, is one of the most delightful productions of any Shakespeare piece I’ve ever seen, and is close to perfect in every conceivable way.
The stage develops a more and more convivial atmosphere as the night goes on until the laughs take over altogether. In this production, directed by Public Theater veteran Daniel Sullivan, the two hugely talented lead actors, Linklater and Ferguson (Public vets themselves), each portray two twins. The decision can seem misguided in places, especially in the still touching final scene, but makes it far more believable that one twin might be mistaken for the other. Linklater and Ferguson, along with the rest of their cast, have a boundless energy that only increased throughout the show despite (or perhaps because of) a rain that began halfway through the performance and kept up until early the next morning. Linklater, wisely, changes his brash accent slightly between twins, and Ferguson has devised separate personalities for his two Dromios—one caring and tender, the other eternally perturbed. One of the production’s strong points is how well the contribution of every creative involved—however seemingly contrasting—fits so well with the intentions of the original script.
This Comedy is set in the 1930s in upstate New York (surprising how many of those far-flung cities share their names with Greek ones), with sparkling music (by Greg Pliska) and choreography (by Mimi Lieber) to match. The Duke (Skip Sudduth) is a Mafioso, Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife, Adriana (Emily Bergl) is an entertainingly brash drunkard, and Dr. Pinch (also Hadary), a quack doctor, is a German pseudo-intellectual reminiscent of Freud. These Shakespeare archetypes transfer without a hitch to the new setting, sometimes with amusing results.
And indeed, the fact that Comedy is so consistently amusing is what is so refreshing about seeing a play like this as part of the Public’s summer lineup. The Comedy of Errors, by far the funniest play of Shakespeare’s oeuvre (or at least the one most concerned with comedy above all), is simply a lot of fun to watch. What an adapter of Shakespeare must be most delicate about is retaining the spirit of the original play, and Mr. Sullivan has done so here. If, until Comedy gives over to July’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Musical,” it can consistently deliver the kind of pure, spine-tingling joy that it did the audience of the very wet (but still magnificent) show I attended, it will have succeeded in its mission to entertain. The Bard would be proud.