June 26, 2013

"The Comedy of Errors" Gets Lots of Laughs While "The King’s Man" Gets At the Dark Stuff


Given a choice between Shakespeare’s comedies and his tragedies, I’ll line up on the side of the serious stuff almost every time. Which is why I was nervous when I set off to meet my theatergoing buddy Bill for a performance of The Comedy of Errors, the first of The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park productions this summer. For Bill loves a good laugh and I didn’t want to be a wet blanket.  So I’m happy to report that this production of the Bard’s first—and probably his silliest—comedy is an irresistible romp that got even a Grinch like me grinning. 

Now it certainly helped that we saw the show at the always-magical Delacorte Theater on the balmy first night of summer and after a luscious dinner at Storico, the chic new restaurant at the New York Historical Society, just a couple of blocks away. But I’m pretty sure you’ll have a good time regardless of the weather or your pre-show menu.  

Like so many of Shakespeare’s tales, The Comedy of Errors pivots on the themes of lost children, separated twins and mistaken identity. In this case, a long-ago shipwreck has separated two pairs of twins, a merchant’s sons (both somehow named Antipholus) and the boy slaves the father bought to attend them (both similarly called Dromio).  

One master-servant pair washed ashore in the Greek town of Ephesus, the other grew up in its nearby rival Syracuse.  Confusion ensues and hilarity reigns when the Ephesians, searching for their long lost kin, wander into Syracuse and are mistaken for their local doppelgangers. 
 
Director Daniel Sullivan cheats a bit by placing the action in a Damon Runyonesque world. The setting doesn’t have anything to do with the play but its tropes are inherently funny and somehow fit right in.
 
That giddiness is underscored by a sextet of jitterbuggers who, both before the show starts and during the scene changes, dance to the happy-go-lucky tunes of The Andrews Sisters, Louis Prima and Fats Waller.

The big-shouldered suits, nip-waisted dresses, snappy fedoras and pompadour hairdos created by costume designer Toni-Leslie James and wig designer Robert-Charles Vallance add just the right visual panache to the merrymaking. 
 
And, of course, the actors do their part too. Particularly amusing is the Duke, played with comic swagger by Skipp Sudduth, who speaks with a dese-and-dem accent and is backed up by a daffy crew of courtiers, eager to brandish their pistols and tommy guns at the least provocation. 

But the biggest laughs are provided by the show’s stars Hamish Linklater, who does double duty as both Antipholuses, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who takes on the two Dromios. The roles are usually played by four actors and so having just two scurry about adds to the  mayhem (subtle costume clues like the color of a hatband help you keep track of who’s who). 
 
Both actors have made their names on TV sitcoms but they’re also stage vets and old hands at doing Shakespeare in the Park and this production allows them to show off their prowess with all kinds of humor from puns to slapstick (it’s a running joke that everyone keeps beating up the Dromios). 

The play has been streamlined to 90-minutes, which is just enough time before the silliness wears out its welcome.  And everyone is having such a good time hamming it up that you’d have to be a bigger sourpuss than me to resist. 
 
But if you still feel yourself antsy for a more serious Shakespearean fix this summer, you might consider buying or renting “Shakespeare: The King’s Man,” a 2012 BBC documentary, now available on DVD, that focuses on the plays Shakespeare wrote after 1603, during the reign of James I.

The three-part series (each an hour long) is hosted by the Columbia University professor James Shapiro, which is a pretty big coup for an American.  But Shapiro has written several books on the Bard including the much acclaimed “A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599” and the more recent “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?”  So he knows his stuff and clearly loves talking about the plays.   
 
His speculations on how the political events of the time (the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 that almost blew up Parliament, the death of James’ beloved first son Henry in 1612 at age 18) shaped how Shakespeare wrote certain plays are accompanied by visits to historical archives and places referenced in the plays and scenes of classic performances by Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart among others, as well as from more recent productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The plays from that period are among Shakespeare’s greatest and include King Lear, Macbeth and Coriolanus. And even the works with happier endings have dark undertones like Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.  All very serious stuff indeed and you can find it by clicking here.

1 comment:

Breena Clarke said...

Can I brave the gnats and mosquitos -- especially the mosquitos? After this read I am inclined to get out the Deep Woods Off and get down there to see it.