By Bernard Krumm Columnist
The 65th Annual Shakespeare Festival kicked off Thursday night with the debut of “The Comedy of Errors,” Shakespeare’s shortest and arguably silliest comedy, as this year’s mainstage production. Despite boasting a few choice performances and inspiring sporadic laughter, this production lacks what the play needs to succeed: silliness.
“The Comedy of Errors,” directed here by Peter Sander, is a farce that relies on slapstick humor and a case of mistaken identity for its comic effect. Set in Ephesus (a city in ancient Greece), the plot revolves around two sets of twins who were separated at birth. One pair of twins (Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus) are the masters of the other set of twins (Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus). When the twins meet each other by chance, all sorts of confusion-fueled hijinks ensue. If the Three Stooges spoke in iambic pentameter, it would look something like “The Comedy of Errors.”
The production design places the play in a more modern setting. While altogether satisfactory, the set design is certainly not the best or most intricate I’ve seen at Hofstra (a little too artificial-looking). The costumes, on the other hand, are rather good. Not to mention they are the only indicator that the play is set in or around the 1950s or ‘60s. For the most part, the physical comedy of the play is well executed. The slapstick is well orchestrated and the production makes good use of the space. Bumbling chase scenes, crashing vespas and a running gag involving handcuffs (not what you’re thinking) provide some genuine laughs.
One of the problems with this production is that it fails to grasp the ridiculous nature of the play itself. Rather than go for broke and embrace the play’s silliness wholeheartedly, many of the actors seem to be playing it straight. One of the exceptions is Brendan Hickey’s hammy performance as Antipholus of Ephesus, one of the twins and the primary victim of the confusion. Playing his character with a pompous and arrogant air, Hickey showcases an understanding of the language and an ear for comic timing that some of his castmates struggle with.
The performances of Ryan Molloy and Matt Engle, who play Dromio of Ephesus and Syracuse respectively, are examples of this. While their similar physicality makes their casting understandable, both are too caught up with interpreting the language to realize its humor. Engle moves too quickly through his lines while Molloy takes his time but loses some of the punch lines.
Will Atkins, who portrays Antipholus of Syracuse, gives a rather conventional performance that is somewhat bereft of the comedic precision that made him stand out in last semester’s production of “A Lie of the Mind.” As Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, Rachel Sutter is inconsistent in realizing the character’s melodramatic and sensual potential. Jordan Schnoor provides a much needed jolt late in the play as Dr. Pinch, a conjurer who attempts to perform an exorcism of Hickey’s character. His emphatic performance is hilariously ridiculous and his mere appearance inspires laughter. Corinne Mestemacher makes the most of her small but pivotal role as a nun by delivering an appropriately parodic performance.
All the more troubling, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the most talented actors in the cast are reduced to playing bit parts.
Perhaps it’s my general distaste for farce, but in my mind there are certainly better choices in Shakespeare’s canon for a mainstage production. However, if your choice is farce then you have to go all out.