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The Comedy of Errors

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lucas Caleb Rooney and Bernardo Cubría
Photo by Joan Marcus

Yes, that is Donald Trump's photo on a fan held by a law-enforcement official. There is, in fact, a painted line on the ground and people running around in T-shirts that read "Border Patrol." And, all right, there's a strange collision of accents that suggest pure Dallas on one side and Guadalajara on the other. But don't read too much weight into The Public Theater's Mobile Shakespeare Unit production of The Comedy of Errors. This is a production that, like the play itself, just wants to have fun, and actually couldn't care less about the world outside its crazy boundaries. But by acknowledging how crazy so much of American immigration politicking already is, it's adroitly preparing you for the zaniness to follow.

Shakespeare cranked that all the way up in this, his most unabashed comedy, which was written early enough in his career that its themes were yet (for him) fresh. And, if formulaic by today's standards, it still plays well. The capture of the merchant Egeon, who's near being put to death due to a law that prohibits Syracusans from entering Ephesus, brings to town Egeon's son Antipholous and his servant Dromio. They are not aware, however, that there is already a pair there with the same names: their twin brothers, from whom they were separated in a shipwreck at a very early age. Various instances of mistaken identity, and by extension hilarity, ensue.

There's not much in the way of deep feelings afoot, but the stakes are high enough that you (like the characters) remain invested, and Shakespeare was skillful at inventively switching up the various Antipholouses and Dromios time and time again. Maybe you don't fret too much about whether Antipholous of Ephesus is really in hot water with his wife Adriana, or whether Antipholous of Syracuse will blow it with Adriana's sister Luciana. But it's convincing enough for to leave room for any given mounting to put its own individual stamp on the silliness.

Aside from the immigration concept (which is essentially abandoned after the opening scene), director Kwame Kwei-Armah applies at best a light imprint that emphasizes the improbable, even improvisatory, nature of the whole thing. Almost every actor plays more than one part, starting with Bernardo Cubría as the Antipholouses and Lucas Caleb Rooney as the Dromios, who set and costume designer Moria Sine Clinton identifies primarily by their hats. (The "natives" wear towering ten-gallon jobs, the visitors baseball caps.)

Lucas Caleb Rooney, Bernardo Cubría, and cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

This ensures that, no matter how quick or frequent the exits and entrances (and some approach light speed), you can always tell at a glance who's speaking, which is a useful way of straightening out the sometimes-complex plot. This gimmick doesn't work as well when both twins in a set are onstage at the same time; seeing the actors holding aloft their head wear for their invisible partner looks a little hokey (in a bad way), and at odds with the more tangible "problem-solving" staging that's otherwise the rule here. (Daniel Sullivan managed this conceit more effectively and creatively in his production at the Delacorte in 2013.)

It is, thankfully, the exception rather than the rule, as Kwei-Armah generally keeps the pacing brisk and the intensity high, even using live percussion (from composer Shane Rettig) to underscore the slapstick nature of the many smacks, slaps, and pratfalls that characterize how the Antipholouses and Dromios frequently interact. Cubría and Rooney make the many scenes of low comedy look like high art; if anything, they underplay their roles, rooting them in reality (or something close to it) while their eyes, voices, and basic body movements get more cracked with disbelief as the plot unspools. Rooney could distinguish the Dromios more fully, but he and Cubría do well at creating a veritable army from which the myriad laughs spring.

Christina Pumariega is a bit broad as Adriana (she behaves like a Manhattan matron interrupted during cocktail hour), which makes her plight of losing her husband harder to accept. But Flor de liz Perez presents a beautiful, tightly wound Luciana who believably needs someone to help her come into her own. And Zuzanna Szadkowski finds plenty of juice in crucial authority figures (ranging from the restyled Duchess to a courtesan to a Mother Abbess), without ever making them complete caricatures. David Ryan Smith and Matt Citron take on a handful of ensemble parts each, doing well enough but never exactly standing out.

Much the same is true of this Comedy of Errors in general; it's fine in the moment, but not one for the history books. It doesn't have to be, of course, as the MSU shows are designed for places like shelters, community centers, and prisons, where any Shakespeare at all is welcomed with open arms. But in repackaging the play, Kwei-Armah has also tweaked it, cutting plenty of lines and even characters, and adding in new, contemporaneous bits that might irk the purists who think The Public, in its downtown home, should mess around less with a play that's already quite short.

Still, there's something to be said for the freedom the production and the actors exhibit here that keeps the evening far removed from stodginess. At the performance I attended, Cubría crossed the stage mumbling in high-speed Spanish. I couldn't understand him, but a woman in the audience doubled over into hysterics, and Cubría had a devoted fan (and frequent sounding board) for the rest of the evening. Was that Shakespeare? Not strictly speaking. But it was nonetheless invigorating and unexpected in a way that might convince even Donald Trump to soften his eternally furrowed brow.

The Comedy of Errors
Through November 22
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, no intermission
Various locations. Please see ticket link.
Tickets and current performance schedule:

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