The Comedy of Errors

Also see Ann's review of Mother Teresa Is Dead

Nat DeWolf and Darren Eliker
I don't think I've ever seen a production of The Comedy of Errors that was set earlier than the 20th century. The Ted Pappas-directed production now at the O'Reilly Theater for Pittsburgh Public Theater is set in a contemporary setting with characters in modern dress but still speaking the Bard's words (for the most part). There's still an atmosphere of time-shift in the production, as one character talks like a Damon Runyon character and another is like a "Chinaman" character from a Charlie Chan (or Breakfast at Tiffany's) movie. The myriad accents and the busyness of the set are just a couple of distractions in what is ultimately a well-acted, satisfactory production of one of the most popular of Shakespeare's comedies.

It's amazing how simple the story is, knowing how many predicaments result. Two sets of identical male twins were born to two couples, one poor and one not. The sons of the poor woman are both named Dromio and are purchased as slaves for the sons of Egeon and his wife Emilia, whose twins are named Antipholus. During an ocean voyage, a tempest storms and Egeon and his wife must abandon ship. To save the boys, each takes one Antipholus and one Dromio. They are separated: Egeon and his two passengers settle in Syracuse where they live until the boys are grown and the others end up in Ephesus. As the play opens, the Syracusians have ventured to Ephesus where they find trouble, confusion and, eventually, a warm reunion.

As James Noone's well designed set is the first thing we see when we enter the theatre, and is worth some time visually exploring, it's good to address it first. Basically, it's a city scene of building fronts and lettered signs and graphic billboards - all of which combine Shakespeare and contemporary references. The directional signs depict local and Shakespearean locales, and the billboards and business signage use Shakespearean references in combination with contemporary business names. They are very clever, and fun for pre-show entertainment, but overabundant. There's an awful lot thrown at us in this production, as if the play itself weren't enough. Well done though they may be, I could have done with a lot fewer billboards and fewer accents. But, of course, The Comedy of Errors is not completely hidden by these elements, and a terrific cast is yet another reminder that less could have been more.

How lucky Pappas is that he has two experienced actors who have a similar look and are equally talented for his Antipholuses. Doug Mertz, with his commanding, theatrical voice, is in his element as Antipholus of Ephesus (I believe I saw him play both twins in a production of this play set in 1950s Havana - he was good there, too). This is what Mertz does best, and I can't imagine a better actor for the role. Unless it would be Darren Eliker, who, as Antipholus of Syracuse, gives the best performance I've seen him give yet (and I've always been a fan). He has lots of room to show his talent for comedy, and though both are directed to play it a bit big (no surprise in this production), neither goes over the top. Nearly as well matched are Tom Ford and Nat DeWolf as the Dromios - of Ephesus and Syracuse, respectively. Their comical costumes (all of the costumes, by Martha Louise Bromelmeier are excellent) play up the heightened comedy in the roles, and secure the twin-like appearance. DeWolfe stands out, however, as a superb comedian; his scenes with Eliker are particularly delightful.

Antipholus of Ephesus has a wife, Adriana, here played by Helena Ruoti, who does her usual top-notch job with the comedy-anger Adriana radiates, with the anger usually thrust toward the wrong Antipholus, of course. Luciana is Adriana's sister, and Amy Landis shows a true spark of comedic skill in this less showy role.

The supporting cast of ten share the rest of the characters, with some doubling and tripling. They're all dependable actors and none disappoint. Tom Schaller in particular does a great job as Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus, even with the Nathan Detroit accent, and also as the swami-like Doctor Pinch. There are cops with Irish accents, Slavic merchants, the earlier referred-to Balthasar with a "classic" Chinese flair, a Latino messenger ... these are mostly minor distractions and too clever by half.

Shakespeare's plays haven't lasted this long without reason, and the best of The Comedy of Errors will burst through any dressing. When presented by a fine cast, it's always a pleasure to see.

The Comedy of Errors continues through November 4 at the O'Reilly Theater for Pittsburgh Public Theater. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit or the box office.

Photo: Ric Evans

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-- Ann Miner

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