Theater review: 'The Comedy of Errors' at the Broad Stage
There are bound to be folks who prefer Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” to his “Much Ado About Nothing” and “As You Like It,” just as there are undoubtedly those who’d rather watch repeats of “Three’s Company” than “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” I can’t count any of these people as friends, but I know they’re out there.
That’s a subtle hint that my response to the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production of “The Comedy of Errors,” now at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through Nov. 27, may be tainted by my preference for character-based comedy over situational farce. The play, modeled on a Roman comedy by Plautus, is a gag machine of mistaken identity involving identical twin brothers separated at sea in a freak shipwreck that divided a family neatly in twain.
The spirit of this British touring production, in keeping with the Globe’s relaxed, audience-friendly style, is loose-limbed and winking. No argument there. The confusion wrought when one twin turns up in Ephesus, where the other prosperously resides, encourages a frolicsome attitude. Director Rebecca Gatward, however, daringly takes this one step further, adding her own layer of horseplay to the comedy.
Employing just a small company of eight actors, the production, set in some hard-to-place semi-modern port town, exponentially increases the zaniness through double-casting. The twin Antipholus brothers, neither of whom is aware of the other’s proximity, are played by Bill Buckhurst with only a pair of eyeglasses to differentiate them while the indistinguishable Dromio servants are played by Fergal McElherron in a frenzy of clowning that is even harder to parse.
What would seem logistically impossible on paper turns out to be breathlessly workable (with some ingenious fudging for the grand finale). Saturday’s opening night audience, a good portion of which was decked in Elizabethan garb for a special benefit gala, seemed too tickled by the rambunctious high jinks to object that the dizzying slapstick mowed down subtler possibilities.
But why should anyone mind when Shakespeare himself doesn’t let realism get in the way of his farcical fun? (He borrowed the idea of twin servants from another Plautus play to stretch the symmetrical antics to the breaking point.) Yet even in this early comedy, considered his first by many scholars, he finds ways of suggesting psychological depths and darker meanings. The threat of death hangs in the air, marital discord hits some jangling notes and the longing for reunion anticipates the tempest-tossed reconciliations of his late romances.
Most productions I’ve seen ignore these textures, treating the play as a knockabout caper. Gatward emphasizes the theatrical playfulness of the work, inviting audiences to be not just in on the joke that confounds the rest of the characters but a party to the troupe’s imaginative method of performing it with so few actors. (The merry final act solution is almost impossible to guess.)
The agile, hard-working cast, set in dervish motion by the shenanigans of Buckhurst and McElherron, is unfailingly energetic, but the characters are individualized only to the extent of their place in the stampeding plot. I can conceive of a production of “The Comedy of Errors” with more haunting resonance, but Shakespeare shows he’s not above simpler pleasures.
— Charles McNulty
"The Comedy of Errors," The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Contact theater for schedule. Ends Nov. 27. $50-$135. (310) 434-3200 or www.thebroadstage.com Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Photo: Fergal McElherron and Bill Buckhurst. Credit: Angela Weiss/WireImage.