Few Shakespeare plays get as little respect — or as few performances — as “The Comedy of Errors.” This farce inspired by Latin playwright Plautus was first performed, as far as we know, at Gray’s Inn during the Christmas season of 1594, but some believe it was written many years earlier, at the beginning of the Bard’s career. In the past century, it was probably seen more often in its Rodgers and Hart musical incarnation, “The Boys from Syracuse.” But though the original is full of mistaken-identity slapstick involving two pairs of identical twins, it also offers mature musing on the relationship between husbands and wives, rulers and subjects, even Protestants and Catholics. Not all of that comes out in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s current production at Brighton High School, but this is still is one of the weirdest, wildest, and most uproarious Shakespeare stagings you’ll ever see.
The plot is simple enough; the catch is that each pair of twins have the same name, Antipholus for the masters and Dromio for the servants. They were separated in a shipwreck shortly after birth; now, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have ventured to Ephesus in search of their twins, and pun-filled chaos results after the Ephesian Antipholus’s wife, Adriana, mistakes the Syracusan Antipholus for her husband. In the end, the two Antipholuses are reunited with their father, Egeon, and their mother, Emilia, in a sequence that anticipates what Shakespeare would subsequently develop in “Pericles.”
The play has been staged with actual twins, but more often the Antipholuses and the Dromios are comically unlike each other. Director David R. Gammons takes this conceit one step farther by casting a white Antipholus of Syracuse (Jesse Hinson) against a black Antipholus of Ephesus (Omar Robinson) and a male Dromio of Ephesus (Eddie Shields) against a female Dromio of Syracuse (Susan S. McGinnis). And that’s just the beginning. Gammons’s conceit is that this “Comedy of Errors” is being rehearsed by a barely competent carnival troupe whose company includes fake Siamese twins. Sarah Newhouse and Richard Snee, attached at the hip by a strap, play characters who regularly appear together, first the Duke of Ephesus and Egeon, and then Adriana and her sister Luciana. Not until the rehearsal reaches act five does the troupe realize that the Duke, Egeon, Adriana, and Luciana will all have to be on stage at the same time, whereupon a wild flurry of desperate improvisation ensues.
In short, this is “The Comedy of Errors” as it might have been presented by the hapless rustics from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” only with supremely accomplished actors. Clocking in at just an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission, it’s a blitzkrieg of knockabout fun. It’s also clearly enunciated and surprisingly easy to follow, even if you’ve never read the play. The Brighton High School stage is a rehearsal-space nightmare: lamps, pails, mannequins, a costume rack, a fire extinguisher, a wall clock, an upright piano, a rocking horse hanging from the rafters, a poster from the 1879 Broadway production starring Stuart Robson and William Crane. Toilet plungers and brushes stand in for more appropriate props; there’s calliope music, snatches of “Unchained Melody” and “That Old Black Magic,” and film references to “Say Anything” (John Cusack and his boombox) and “Forrest Gump.”
The costumes and makeup are outrageous; the jokes whiz by at dizzying speed. Paige Clark as Emilia mimes pregnancy with an umbrella. Newhouse’s Adriana uses a lasso to rope her man and later appears with a shopping bag from Thirty Petals Boutique in Belmont. Hinson strips down to orange and blue boxers with “Syracuse” in big letters down the side; then he gives Snee’s Luciana a teddy bear, which Snee tosses into the audience. The troupe’s director, a megaphone-toting Cameron M. Cronin, keeps interrupting to admonish his actors but forgets his own lines.
Some of the Bard’s pathos is lost, but nothing could be more poignant than the final face-off between the twin Dromios, who came into the world together and, in a gesture of how we’re all halves of each other, leave the same way, hand in hand. Rarely is Shakespeare so hilarious and yet so moving.