Is it an error to move “The Comedy of Errors” from Ancient Greece, where Shakespeare placed this early play of his, to upstate New York in the 1940’s? That is the setting of director Daniel Sullivan’s Shakespeare in the Park production, starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater as two pairs of identical twins cast into a slapstick sea of mistaken identity.
In the Public Theater’s 51st season in Central Park, Sullivan, who previously plunked his “The Merchant of Venice” in Edwardian England, seems to base his new move on nothing more than a weak pun. Syracuse is the name of one of two Greek city-states having a trade war in Shakespeare’s play; Syracuse is also the name of the fifth largest city in New York State. Even “The Boys of Syracuse,” the Rodgers and Hart musical based on “The Comedy of Errors,” still took place in Ancient Greece.
It is hard, though, to find even among Shakespeare devotees many partisans of “The Comedy of Errors,” which Coleridge dismissed as “farce, as distinguished from comedy and from entertainments.“ Few are likely to object to Sullivan’s odd choice after seeing the swift, well-acted 90-minute entertainment that he has come up with, while keeping (most of) the Bard’s words. How else could he have worked in Lindy-Hopping dancers in two-tone shoes? The swing dancers take charge of the stage around a jazzy juke box before the play begins, and execute Mimi Lieber’s electrifying choreography in-between every scene. John Lee Beatty’s set of swiveling buildings from small town America, with a nod to Edward Hopper, and cool period costumes by Toni-Leslie James, add to the effect. All this has nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare’s plot or characters, but they are a welcome diversion – by which I mean, both a detour and an amusement.
Similarly, upstate New York in the 1940s apparently resembled Chicago in the 1920’s – at least in Daniel Sullivan’s version of history — since his production also includes a Duke (Skip Sudduth) who sounds like a mobster out of “Guys and Dolls,” accompanied by his henchmen in stylish pin-striped suits, as well as a bluesy jazz singer (De’Adre Aziza) as the courtesan and a trio of machine gun-toting nuns. (Don’t ask.)
What salvages this Shakespeare for people who actually like Shakespeare is a cast that performs the Bard’s language clearly and to great effect, while simultaneously presenting the fanciful stage business with aplomb. This is evident at the outset, when we see Jonathan Hadary as Egeon, father of one of the pairs of twins, condemned to death by the Duke because he is from Syracuse and violated a law in Ephesus forbidding Syracusans from doing business in the city (as reprisal for a similar law in Syracuse. ) Egeon explains to the Duke why he is in Syracuse; he is looking for one of his sons. All this Hadary enunciates faultlessly. But he is dressed like a traveling salesman, and carries a sample case that turns out to share properties with Felix the cat’s; he withdraws from it a huge ship’s mast and little puppets so that he can re-enact the tale of the long-ago shipwreck that separated the two pairs of twins, both named Antipholus and Dromio, master and servant – who are now Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, and Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater nail this pairing of the physical and the linguistic in parts usually played by four actors. Both actors are best known for their roles in sitcoms, Ferguson in “Modern Family” and Linklater in “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” But both are experienced stage actors, and old Shakespeare in the Park hands, having previously appeared in both Sullivan’s “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Winter’s Tale.” Ferguson is a master of the pratfall and the double-take, but he also delivers Shakespeare’s inexcusable puns with unusual clarity and hilarity. A highlight is his recounting of his encounter with the beastly kitchen wench (played by the same actor who plays the Duke, Skipp Sudduth): “She is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her” – and then does so, finding Ireland in her buttocks and England in her “chalky cliffs” and Netherlands in…well, never mind. (It is disappointing that this production chooses to omit one of the few references in any of Shakespeare’s work to America. Dromio finds America and the Indies upon the wench’s nose, “over-embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain.”)
Equally adept at the high diction and low comedy of the play are Emily Bergl as Antophilus of Ephesus’ jealous wife Adriana and Heidi Schreck as Luciana, Adriana’s single sister, for whom the unmarried Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love. This shocks Luciana, since she thinks Antipholus of Syracuse is Antipholus of Ephesus and thus married to her sister. This is one of the many, many complications and confusions of “The Comedy of Errors,” too many to explain, and not as hilarious as they are probably supposed to be, but, in Daniel Sullivan’s hands, as entertaining as any summer night is likely to be in New York.
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At the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, near 81st Street and Central Park West
By William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Toni-Leslie James; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by Acme Sound Partners; hair and wig design by Robert-Charles Vallance; music by Greg Pliska; fight director, Rick Sordelet; choreographer, Mimi Lieber; dramaturge, Robert Blacker
Cast: De’Adre Aziza (Courtesan), Becky Ann Baker (Abbess), Emily Bergl (Adriana), Tyler Caffall (Second Merchant), Reed Campbell (Officer), Keith Eric Chappelle (Balthasar), Robert Creighton (Angelo), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Dromio of Syracuse/Dromio of Ephesus), Jonathan Hadary (Egeon/Pinch), Bryan Langlitz (First Merchant), Hamish Linklater (Antipholus of Syracuse/Antipholus of Ephesus), Heidi Schreck (Luciana), Skipp Sudduth (The Duke) and Natalie Woolams-Torres (Messenger); with J. Clint Allen, Reggie Gowland, Brian T. Lawton, Michael McArthur, Rachel McMullin, Adrienne Weidert and Jessica Wu (Ensemble).
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: free. (See Shakespeare in the Park website for details)
“The Comedy of Errors” runs through June 30, 2013