by JK Clarke
The thing about Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors that both has the potential to make it completely fascinating, but also logistically challenging, is that it features two sets of identical twins. That Shakespeare had had twins of his own some five to seven years prior to writing this play may explain his fascination with the conceit. Most productions today don’t use actual twins, so how a company conducts the ruse is always intriguing, though neither play really has much to do with this very minor device. The bigger question, certainly in the Comedy of Errors, is how the more significant issue of long-term estrangement is handled. The Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, under the direction of Kwame Kwei Armah, makes a multi-pronged attack on the question, and the result is rather intriguing.
The central conflict of The Comedy of Errors is a border/nationality issue and Armah has chosen to make this a modern play and placed the conflict on the Mexican/American border, complete with mustachioed, aviator sunglass-wearing, paramilitary thugs who are hungry to arrest and execute any trespassers. When Solina, Duke of Ephesus (Zuzanna Szadkowski) hears Egeon of Syracuse’s (a touchingly bereft rancher, played by David Ryan Smith) sad tale of the lost twin sons he’s searching for, she grants him a day to raise an exorbitant fee rather than face execution. His sons, oddly carrying the same name (one is Antipholus of Syracuse, the other of Ephesus), as are their servants (both are Dromio, which can only serve the purpose of adding to the confusion), happen both to be in Ephesus at that moment (Ephesus lives there, Syracuse, at great risk, has come to find his brother). But, of course, no one knows this, and for the better part of a day total chaos reigns in the land. Wives and money lenders are both perplexed and enraged, perilously so. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse ultimately, as the tension reaches a climax, take refuge in a sanctuary, presided over by an Abbess, who, lo and behold, turns out (at the height of all the big reveals) to be the (presumed drowned at sea) mother of the Antipholi and Egeon’s wife. Merriment ensues as the family is reunited and tales are told.
In the weeks prior to settling at The Public Theater on Lafayette, the Mobile Shakespeare Unit tours the production throughout the region, bringing Shakespeare to folks who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to experience it. They play everywhere from community centers to shelters to correctional facilities (including Riker’s Island and Bedford Hills), and are received with great enthusiasm at every stop along the way. A play like The Comedy of Errors—with Its themes of familial estrangement, bureaucratic boundaries, and hope in hopeless scenarios—suits the purpose perfectly and surely rings true to many. To facilitate the message, this production is very demonstrative (almost panto or vaudevillian with a good measure of slapstick thrown in as the Dromios are beaten mercilessly and . . . hilariously?), and the fourth wall is frequently broken, with audience members being pulled into the action at times or spoken to directly at others. I also found an element of Expressionism is the production: the family’s moment of reunification is, of course, ecstatic, but facilitated in an almost mystical fashion with the aid of the ecclesiastical figure of the Abbess who has more power and influence than the border patrol agents and the Duke. And the reunification of a father with his sons almost immediately following what should have been his death, certainly has the resurrection in mind. For those audience members whose lives are in disarray, this production must have provided a powerful message of hope.
More important, however, is the aptitude with which the cast pulled off the complicated maneuver of portraying two sets of twins. The Dromios (played to both great comic effect by Lucas Caleb Rooney) and the Antipholi (Bernardo Cubría) are indicated by different hat styles (one rancher, one baseball cap) and feature vastly different personalities. The two twins do a remarkable job, especially at the climax, of jumping back and forth between the characters by holding a hat over an empty space and speaking directly to it. And both David Ryan Smith (Angelo, Egeon and Pinch) and Zuzanna Szadkowski (Solina, Emilia and Courtesan) vary their characters so extremely (aided by Moria Sine Clinton’s clever costume design, which included a stunningly realistic body suit for Angelo that stood in for a torso full of tattoos), that telling them apart was not a problem for even a moment (important for an audience new to the theatrical experience).
The Mobile Shakespeare Unit is an invaluable component of the already spectacular Public Theater (especially of late, under Oskar Eustis Artistic Direction) that hammers home one of the most important elements of Shakespeare’s works: that they are not reserved for a certain class or intellect; they are for everyone. Furthermore, the themes are resoundingly universal and speak to all people, throughout time. The Mobile Unit is invaluable in its preservation of the total value of the Bard’s works. Every one of their productions should be anticipated with glee.
The Comedy of Errors. Through November 22 at The Public Theater’s Shiva Theater (Mobile Shakespeare Unit), 425 Lafayette Street (just south of Astor Place, between 8th Street and 4th Street). www.publictheater.org
- Photos by Joan Marcus