Errors -- of identification, understanding and more -- abound in the Public Theater's current Shakespeare in the Park offering, The Comedy of Errors. But director Daniel Sullivan, who transplants the action from the Ancient Greek city of Ephesus (in present-day Turkey) to the Adirondacks, circa 1940, makes no errors whatsoever. Mr. Sullivan and producer Oskar Eustis have taken this relatively minor slice of Shakespeare and turned it into a delightfully breezy 90-minute lark.
The original production of Shakespeare's comedy might have been a laugh riot in 1594, but the version at the Delacorte has an immediacy that brings today's playgoers right into the story. How do you make all that expository information in the first scene instantly register with the audience? By having the Duke and his henchman talk, dress and act like Nathan Detroit and his Runyonesque Guys and Dolls minions, and by buoying the longish tale of the shipwreck with cartoonish props. The result is smooth sailing throughout.
Even before the curtain, the atmosphere is festive (as long as you haven't been caught in a Central Park deluge). Six energetic jitterbugs entertain through the pre-show -- Louis Prima's 1936 hit "Sing, Sing, Sing" is the evening's musical theme -- and glide us through the many scene changes. While dance is only a device used to keep the joint jumpin', choreographer Mimi Lieber gets a whole mini-show out of her dancers. This is all at Sullivan's behest; the director, whose recent offerings include the high drama of Orphans, Good People, and the Public/Pacino Merchant of Venice, seems to be on a holiday jaunt here. Happy audiences reap the benefits.
Errors is the one about the pair of identical twins and their identical twin slaves, separated in infancy. The boys from Syracuse wander into Ephesus where they are uncomfortably embroiled in the affairs of their unknown siblings, instantly finding themselves with friends, wives, mistresses, debts and more. Don't blame Shakespeare; he got it from Menaechmi, written by the Roman playwright Plautus back around 200 BC. The whole affair is better known, hereabouts, through George Abbott's libretto for the 1938 Rodgers & Hart musical comedy, The Boys from Syracuse.
Where Sullivan comes up aces is in his use of the twins. The Comedy of Errors (and The Boys from Syracuse, for that matter) have usually relied on two sets of non-twin actors playing the two sets of twins. In this case, the production is driven by the casting of two television names with strong stage experience. Hamish Linklater, of School of Lies and Seminar, plays Antipholus; Jesse Tyler Ferguson, of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and TVs Modern Family, plays Dromio. Both are perfectly at home with Shakespeare and at the Delacorte; their credits include playing Bassanio and Launcelot Gobbo in Pacino's (and Sullivan's) Merchant. (Audiences who caught the show at the Broadhurst did not see the pair, as television commitments made them miss the transfer.)
What makes this Comedy of Errors so right, and magnifies the fun two or threefold, is that Sullivan lets his two stars play their own brothers. Thus, the "twins" are truly identical, and the comedy of having one Dromio exit over there and immediately enter over here is magnified. (Mr. Ferguson is spending his summer vacation being pummeled by his master onstage while running an obstacle course offstage.) Linklater and Ferguson, thus, are playing two leading roles each. Hams that they are, they make the most of it. As does Sullivan. While those familiar with the play might grow nervous at the approach of the final scene -- in which both sets of twins need be onstage together -- it turns out that Sullivan has a simple and workable solution.
As is typical with Sullivan, the cast abounds with good performances. Jonathan Hadary (as Egeon, the father of the Antipholus twins) and Skipp Sudduth (as the Duke) get the play off to that fast, Runyonesque start; further, they are both assigned delightful and very funny doubling. Emily Bergl turns the wife Adriana into a droll clown, with a delicious pratfall of her own; De'Adre Aziza livens things up -- and sings a bit -- as the local Courtesan; Robert Creighton has some good moments as the goldsmith Angelo; and Becky Ann Baker helps wind things up as the Abbess.
Linklater and Ferguson -- who have an onstage camaraderie not unlike that of Bill Irwin and David Shiner -- make The Comedy of Errors an especial joy, but only through June 30. Next up: a new musical comedy adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost from Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, the pair who gave the Public Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.