Central Park offers a natural bucolic setting for Shakespeare's lighter fare, but with this year's Comedy of Errors, its lush greens frame an urban stage for Ephesus, a fictive town in upstate New York that harbors mob types among its citizenry. At center, three buildings rotate in the foreground representing by turns a train station (Adirondack Transit Lines), brothel, hotel, jewelry shop, a private home, Saint Bridget's abbey with an homage to Edward Hopper's as the back street. This smalltown, USA designed by John Lee Beatty ideally serves the shenanigans involving a set of twins, attended by another set of twins, just the fodder for Shakespearean mistaken identities. Three couples jitterbug as a preamble, signaling a jazz age time shift for the Chaplin meets Gumby of Dromio (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and the dapper man he serves Antipholus (Hamish Linklater). A Duke (Skipp Sudduth) whose voice is more Guys & Dolls--or a nod to James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano--metes justice.
A confection spun of twins separated at birth, a jealous wife, crafty merchants, this comedy, is taken from Plautus and probably Shakespeare's first. If brevity is the soul of wit, by the time all the loose ends get wrapped up in this rather short piece, performed without intermission, you can go for another round of eye-rolling slapstick and the sheer joy of happy endings.
Lest this be mistaken for mere child's play, Comedy of Errors, in true Shakespearean spirit also reflects upon more serious matters of politics for those seeking models of compassionate but strong leadership: The plot is simple and starts sad: a merchant Egeon from Syracuse (Jonathan Hadary) arriving illegally to Ephesus by train is to be executed. In a weary, despondent speech--more for the disappointment of lost causes than a plea for his life-- he explains utilizing props in a suitcase--a fold out boat, etc., he has come in search of his twin sons, their twin servants, and a wife who had all been lost at sea 18 years prior. The one son who he raised and his servant have gone in search of their lost brothers and Egeon has come following them, only to be arrested. Now, shown mercy by the sympathetic Duke who is defying a law in not killing him at once, he is given a day to come up with a ransom or die. Needless to say, that each set of twins has the same name, Antipholus and Dromio, lends itself to hilarious errors: misunderstandings, miscommunications, and mischiefs. And, it goes without saying--this being comedy--they do find each other. The end is a picture of diplomacy, despite rifle wielding nuns, with brothers not only united, but after vying for supremacy, walking off together into the proverbial sunset.
How to stage a production for these characters whose fates thus collide must have been complicated. Under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, who directed Merchant of Venice and As You Like It in previous summers, the theme of twins is underscored by various sets of doubles: Two sets of twins, two merchants (Brian Langlitz and Tyler Caffall), two sisters, Adriana (Emily Bergl), the other Luciana (Heidi Schreck), or the contrasting courtesan (De'Adre Aziza) with the abbess (Becky Ann Baker) all suggest duality. Shakespeare lite, the play is a rehearsal for preoccupations more developed in later work; he seems to ask, who are we in life, as we appear, or the roles we play, are we who we think we are, or creatures of nature? And what are we capable of? Adriana, a jealous wife, benign in this comedy, may become Iago in Othello, inciting murder and suicide. Identity in this play is like the film Trading Places; suddenly people don't acknowledge you. In Comedy of Errors, someone you never met before comes over and says hi and claims to be your spouse, it could be terrifying--and hilarious.
But how do you situate the identical twins onstage together? Here that feat is handily done. With one actor, it serves the comedy more; with two, the reconciliation is more emotional. For this charming night of theater, they had it both ways.
A note on synergy: the Edward Hopper painting in question, his 1930 Early Sunday Morning, is currently on display at The Whitney Museum's superb exhibition, "Hopper Drawing."
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.