Shakespeare Alive

The Hartford Stage’s production of The Comedy of Errors (running until February 12) is spectacular. Shakespeare used Plautus, and Plautus borrowed from Greek comedy, and Darko Tresnjak, director and scenic designer,  borrowed from such an eclectic mix of periods and styles that half the fun of watching the play is to cue the right pop music reference or the 60s Italian film comedy –  the “Never on Sunday” theme is a leitmotif. No sense in talking about the plot, which indeed is nonsense: Pairs of twins, mistaken identities, multiple reunions and a slew of marriages take the action to climax – this is comedy – but the fun is getting to the inevitable end.

So much is going on, and with such energy, that at times I found hard knowing where to look. The boozing pill-popping wife, beautiful Adriana, can’t cope with the stress of her reluctant husband (the lost twin) and writhes with serpentine wiles that surely would have had a lesser man (or one less bewildered) yielding to the pliant embrace of her marvelous limbs.

We have literal slap-stick with masters beating slaves and a crowd of on-lookers with beach balls, swim suits and diving gear, offering distraction between the scenes. The central section of the set is a harbor pool with two boats and a surrounding pier – which is but one wonderful aspect to the scenic design. Two versatile musicians playing at various times mandolin, guitar, accordion, and violin, offer a type of overture. They first accompany the resident woman of pleasure in her torch singer’s vamp to life in the sensual world of the drama. Sex, violence, and body jokes have an enormous stage half-life. Well played all of them.

A piece like this is hostage to comic timing and rapid fire delivery. The actors, especially the grooms Dromio – who end the play with a raucous soft-shoe – don’t hesitate. Sometimes the delivery is so fast that the lines get lost, but I suspect that four hundred year old wit might not register with the sharpness of visual gags and physical comedy. Witness the alarmingly pneumatic Nell, pursuer of one Dromio, whose costume seems always on the verge of bursting. She manages acrobatic splits and cartwheels, as she threatens to scissor in her legs her male prey. The show-stopper, that really is just a pause in the flow, is a Bollywood dance number mimed by the cast and featuring the two grooms, one in drag, that leads to a concluding ensemble finale. And then the show goes on, ninety-three minutes without intermission, and every moment spectacle. The excitement generated took me back to the legendary Peter Brooks’ Midsummer Night’s Dream of the 60s. This is the sort of Shakespeare that has to make live theater appeal to contemporary audiences. (I think of all the woeful productions I took properly skeptical students to!) Certainly the audience at the Sunday matinee that I attended, most of us happily covered by Medicare, rose to its feet for sustained applause. Do give yourself a treat and see the play.

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Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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