A Joyful Romp through the Centuries in "The Comedy of Errors"

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The Comedy of Errors
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
Drew University
Madison, N.J.

The Comedy of Errors begins when Ephesian police, looking very much like the Hollywood Keystone Kops of the silent movie era, chase Egeon, a rather dapper looking man from Siracusa who is visiting town, all over the city’s boardwalk, jumping up and down, pointing night sticks and frantically blowing whistles. He is condemned to death on a trumped-up charge but assured that he can live if he can raise enough money to pay his fine. Looking for sympathy, he relates the tale of how he lost his wife and two sets of twin sons in a shipwreck.

Egeon then disappears and a young man, Antipholus of Syracuse, arrives with his servant Dromio. They are immediately mistaken for another set of men who have lived in town all of their lives. They don't know what the other set of men are doing and the second set does not know what they are doing. A madcap, slapstick romp ensues that involves oversexed women, confused cops, nuns dressed like Sally Fields in The Flying Nun, women with beards, bankrupt merchants and a really crazy wizard. Everybody seems to chase everyone else over the boardwalk throughout the play. These people can run, too. Someone should grab them off the stage and put them in the London Olympics.

The 1590s William Shakespeare play, which opened Saturday outdoors at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey (celebrating its fiftieth summer) takes place around 1920 in the resort city of Ephesus, a community more than 2,000 years old on the western coast of Turkey. Ephesus, for much of its history part of Greece, was one of the largest cities in the ancient world, with over 250,000 residents. Today it is a favorite of travelers because of its extensive ruins. The set is a series of bright brown seaside boardwalks, a huge rowboat and a series of building fronts that are rushed on to and off the boardwalk. Behind the boardwalk, jutting out in to the night sky, are two enormous tourist postcards for Ephesus, like those of Atlantic City in that era.

The Comedy of Errors is a short, lightweight play. It is held together by a thin and rather silly plot, has few turns and is populated by dozens of actors who always seem about to crash into each other. The play’s director, Jason King Jones, works a miracle, though, single handedly turning the work into a perfectly wonderful screwball comedy that evokes roars of laughter, whether it is 1620, 1920 or 2012.

There is much jaw dropping, hand waving and feet scurrying from start to finish. In one scene half the cast tries to open a door, held shut by one man on the other side. They all become part of a turnstile, mouths wide open in fear. It is hysterical, outdone only by a scene in which the four twins escape police by sitting at an outdoor café hidden behind large newspapers. The wizard, dressed in a wacky turban, who doubles as the city’s prince, walks on water and hangs out with beautiful young nymphs. Everybody not only runs back and forth cross the boardwalk and into and out of convents, but up and down through the aisles of the theater, guffawing and cavorting wherever they go.

If you knew nothing of the play and nothing about Shakespeare, you would still love this marvelous work.

There is much unplanned humor on and off the stage. Throughout the performance, written in the 1590s, there are airplanes and helicopters flying overhead and the frequent whistle of the Erie Lackawanna railroad, that runs right past the college. Just like the 1590s, right?

The real fun in this performance began early in the second act when a huge Fourth of July fireworks show began just a few hundred yards away that illuminated the sky. The sound of the bursting fireworks dwarfed the dialogue of the actors on the stage, so, they simply stopped the play, turned and watched the rather dazzling fireworks. So did everyone in the audience. A few moments later, a man in the audience stood and, since it was the Fourth of July weekend, started to sing the national anthem, quite loudly. Everyone in the outdoor theater, eyes wide and smiles large, immediately joined him. The actors joined in, too, singing loudly and proudly. Ironically, the fireworks ended just a moment after the national anthem and the play resumed to thunderous applause from the crowd, which was lustily cheering the play, the fireworks and America.

Shakespeare would have loved it.

Director Jones did a fine job of reaching back to both the 1590s and 1920s for this play that was so full of mirth. He received stellar performances from a fine cast. The Antipholuses, Matthew Simpson and Philip Mutz, were wonders. The Dromios, Sean Hudock and Jack Moran, who looked and performed just like Chico Marx, of the Marx Brothers, were hilarious. The acrobatic and multi-talented Phillip Christian played the wizard and duke. Matt Sullivan was Egeon, Amanda Duffy the perplexed wife, Alison Layman her lustful sister. Others in the play were Jay Leibowitz, Rocio Mendez, Eileen Glenn and a chorus of Ephesus locals -- off to the beach, I suppose.

Unfortunately, you do not learn much about Ephesus’s history beyond the cops and mixed up couples. You do learn that the seaside city was a flourishing resort in the 1920s, the Atlantic City of its day for European vacationers, and an ancient city full of lovers strolling about arm and arm. You just wish Shakespeare, or Jones, had given us a little more history, even if just a thirty second biography sketched by one of the actors.

The play ends nicely with everybody’s true identity discovered, sort of. The Comedy of Errors is a summertime blast for all.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Sets: Charlie Calvert; Costumes: Nancy Leary; Lighting: Rachel Miner; Sound: Rich Dionne. The play was directed by Jason King Jones.

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