In Syracusa was I born, and wed
Unto a woman happy but for me,
And by me, had not our hap been bad.
With her I lived in joy...
This is part of the opening speech of Egeon, which sets the stage for The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s shortest, and one of his earliest plays. Egeon is the father of twin brothers, both named Antipholus, whose servants are the twins Dromio and Dromio (this is farce - don’t ask why the brothers share the same names). The play is structured around a series of coincidences and mistaken identities involving these four, separated at birth.
You will probably not recognize these or any other lines from the seldom performed or read Comedy, but mark them well, for director Paul Barnes uses them, (taking broad liberties with the book here and throughout) to provide an added and charming comic unity to the play.
This is the Bard’s only play, other than The Tempest, which observes the classical, Aristotelian unities of action, place and time, meaning that it consists of one main action, in one place, and happening in real time, for the most part. This is worth mentioning, because what Barnes and his players have achieved here, a show of breathless, breakneck pace, perfectly choreographed and composed, and performed as tightly as any orchestral composition, has much to do with the seamless construction of the play.
The production is transposed from a classical Greek setting to ante-bellum (or perhaps post-) New Orleans, with the actors mostly adopting a broad Southern drawl. This sort of translation is usually just a cheesy, distracting trick to provide a bit of variety where creative imagination lacks, but here it works to perfection. The accent somehow clarifies the Elizabethan language, and emphasizes the meter of Shakespeare’s blank verse, which sets the rhythm and marvelously quick tempo of the show. You will often hear the players pronouncing both syllables of suffixes like “-tion” so as not to break meter.
The New Orleans setting is also particularly apt for the stunning visual effect of the show which, as theater should, combines the best of literature, the written word, and representational art, particularly painting. It is a moving tableau of rapidly changing yet precise images, none of which arise by chance. (This is greatly facilitated by the usual sumptuous costuming of Margaret Weedon, and the New Orleans set which, by this company’s standards, is nearly rococo.) The scene in which Tarah Flanagan’s Adriana hectors Antipholus, shadowed by her attendant, Evan Fuller, is priceless. He follows in her steps and shades her with a tall pastel parasol, all the while wordlessly mimicking her speech and gestures, visually lampooning to another level what is already hilarious in Adriana’s reading of her lines.
In between scenes, chanting Mardi Gras revelers weave through the set, with John Daly’s Egeon importuning any and all, “In Syracusa was I born and wed...” trying to beg the price of his ransom, the comic effect ratcheting higher with each new version.
And at one point, a propos to I can’t remember what, the narrative is set aside for a riotous series of send-ups to New Orleans and southern icons, Louis Armstrong, Marlon Brando (Stella!), Scarlet O’Hara, Janis Joplin, Elvis, you name it.
In addition to the poetic and visual aspects of the play, there is the sumptuous musical one. In past years, Doug Scholz-Carlson (Dromio of Syracuse) provided most of the singing for the company, and was always a unique and well-loved act. Now, the whole troupe bursts into song at the drop of a hat, and in this show the effect is overwhelming. I believe all of the female leads sang solo beautifully, (the production goes so fast and furious it’s hard to keep track), and the troupe’s ensemble made for a grand finale that blew the audience out of their seats for the standing ovation.
Jack Forbes Wilson, who first appeared last year in “The Daly News” accompanied all the music on piano, as well as providing a continuous, witty musical commentary to the show in general. The man can also play a righteous gospel piano, backing up Shanara Gabrielle’s “Amazing Grace,” and the whole cast in “I’ll Fly Away”. These numbers are native to the New Orleans setting, but also resonate strongly with and validate the play’s continuing themes of separation and reunion.
I hope this provides some sense of what a wonderful evening The Comedy of Errors provided. Go see the show for yourself and be prepared for a joyous experience of visual and musical poetry which starts big and fast, building and accelerating to a climax which will leave you dazed, elated, and wondering how old-fashioned theater can be so powerful. Be advised to bring your own seat belt.