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Comedic Shakespeare performance no ‘Error’

Michelle Fordice | Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Summer Shakespeare’s interpretation of “The Comedy of Errors” was a splendid look at the humor in life.

One of Shakespeare’s fastest and most farcical plays, “Errors” is a wonderful respite from the humdrums of reality and the rollicking pace and slight irreverence of Summer Shakespeare – the professional theatre in residence at Notre Dame – complement its century bridging humor.

One of Shakespeare’s earliest works, “Errors” takes the premise of mistaken identity between twins from the works of ancient Roman playwright Plautus. The Bard builds on Plautus’ original work and turns it into a boisterous play that lets love, jealousy, slapstick and a strong helping of coincidence wreak havoc in the day of several citizens and visitors to the city of Ephesus.

The play opens as Egeon, an aged merchant of Syracuse, is led to his execution for trespassing on the city of Ephesus and after being unable to pay the 1,000 mark fine for such an offense. The Duke of Ephesus asks him to explain why he allowed himself to fall into this dire, but avoidable, position. Egeon explains that he was a young merchant happily married and blessed with two identical twin sons whom he both named Antipholus.

For his sons he bought a pair of identical twin boys, whom he named Dromio, so that they could grow up and serve as menservants to his sons. Unfortunately, when returning to Syracuse on a sea voyage, a violent storm sprang up and flung all of his family into the sea. Egeon managed to save one pair of boys, but his wife, his second son and the second Dromio were lost. Egeon raised his remaining son, but lost him years later when he went looking for his brother. Now in search of his family he ends up in Syracuse, sentenced to death. Moved by the tale, the Duke allows Egeon one day to raise the money to buy his life.

Meanwhile, Antipholus of Syracuse has unknowingly arrived in the same city as his father along with his man Dromio. He sends Dromio away to deposit some money only to have Dromio return claiming he needs to go home to dine with his wife, of which Antipholus has none. Little does he know, this is not his Dromio, but that of his brother, a prosperous man of the city, who is married. Chaos ensues as the brothers and their menservants are repeatedly mixed and paired with the wrong people, to the point where they think only witchcraft or insanity could explain their situation.

By the end of the day, man has mistaken master, wife mistaken husband, and nothing but merry chaos has orchestrated their interactions, but the love of both family and sweetheart set all to rights.

Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, “Errors” spans the ages well because it appeals to common human elements – no matter how exaggerated and impossible they may first appear on stage.

Ironically, “Errors” opens not with a laugh or even a smile, but with an imminent execution and story of tragedy. The play is the epitome of using comedy to battle the pitfalls of life.

This basic concept coupled with the simple appeal of the character’s antics allows it to be as entertaining to a 16th century audience as the 21st century audience that sat in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center this August.

The cast did not hesitate to fall full force into the buffoonery of Shakespeare’s play. Led by director William Brown, it blended modern comedic elements to make Shakespeare’s humor resound while refraining from diluting the potency of his dialogue with too many gags.

Still, such touches as having Luciana read Paul’s “Letter to the Ephesians” or having the executioner hug Egeon because he feels sorry for him, make this performance a little bit more their own.

The cast’s performance was complemented by the work of scenic designer Todd Rosenthal and costume designer Richard E. Donnelly. Both implemented strong colors and mostly simplistic geometric patterns that reflected the lighthearted and energetic tone of the play.

“Errors” was the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to follow the three classical unities of Aristotle’s “Poetics,” and the simple, operational, and bold set maintained a strong “unity of place.” As an added bonus, the crew constructed a working fountain in the center of the stage with which the actors could make use of to look into, splash and even walk through.

“Errors” is a wonderfully energizing play and Notre Dame’s Summer Shakespeare did it full justice. The audience walked out smiling, thoroughly enjoying a night of Shakespeare.

While “Errors” finished its run in the DPAC, make sure to catch next year’s performances by Summer Shakespeare, which runs from mid-July to late-August.