Story: Egeon, a merchant from Syracuse, has spent several years searching for his wife and one of their twin sons, who along with a twin servant were separated in a storm at sea from Egeon and one of his twin sons as well as the other servant. The surviving son and servant were renamed by Egeon in honor of their missing twins, Antipholus and Dromio, respectively. Now, Egeon risks his life by entering Ephesus, which routinely executes unwanted visitors from Syracuse, in his quest to find his missing wife and missing son. Egeon is captured, but the Duke of Ephesus, moved by Egeon’s tale, allows him 24 hours to raise the money to secure his freedom.
Unbeknownst to Egeon, his son and servant also show up in Ephesus at the same time, as Antipholus conducts his own search for his brother. Mistaken identities aplenty occur as the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband, a jeweler accuses him of theft of a valuable necklace and the girlfriend of Dromio of Ephesus insists that Dromio of Syracuse is her boyfriend. Chaos and confusion escalate as Egeon attempts to raise the funds to win his freedom even as he continues to look for his missing family members, while his son and servant from Syracuse are convinced that black magic must be responsible for so many people accusing them of things they can’t remember ever doing. Can anyone make sense of this mess before Egeon runs out of time?
Highlights: What to do with a lightweight affair that may have been the first play that William Shakespeare ever wrote? While purists and theater artists may savor every word that The Bard put on paper, many of us are easily bored by the repetitive nature of Will’s humor when it comes to identical twins, mistaken identities and the misadventures and misinterpretations that may arise from such plot devices.
Never fear! Intrepid director Paul Mason Barnes has concocted a clever conceit in which The Comedy of Errors is set “near” New Orleans at Mardi Gras, circa 1936. This actually works extremely well, as the goofy shenanigans, slapstick and pratfalls so prevalent in many of Will’s comedies at least are easier to accept with such a magical, enchanted and fun-loving background. Barnes’ inspiration also allows for delightful use of the glorious musical sounds of the Big Easy, from stirring gospel numbers to Dixieland jazz to amusing take-offs on sundry Southern comforts as diverse as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and even great impostors such as The Animals. Blend those intoxicating musical melodies with the precise movements of Barnes’ expert cast and, quicker than you can say Witchy Woman, The Rep’s rousing rendition of The Comedy of Errors proves to be substantially more entertaining than the play itself.
Other Info: The emphasis on movement of the characters across The Rep stage is substantial and consistent throughout the two-act presentation, which still could benefit from pruning 15 minutes or so from its two and a half hours. Somehow, Barnes and stage manager Glenn Dunn keep everyone on cue and on precise time as the wacky escapades are played out. There is so much going on that it presents an embarrassment of riches after a point.
Whether it’s Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse undressing and dressing each other simultaneously (seeing is believing, folks), or either Antipholus ‘pounding’ on either Dromio via the servant’s hat, or performers making the most adroit use of umbrellas or dummies to enhance a scene, it’s all happening at The Rep.
One of the major stars on stage is musical director and arranger Jack Forbes Wilson, who sits in his second-tier perch overseeing the grand scope of Mardi Gras while regaling the audience with his considerable dexterity at the keyboard. It’s especially great fun when Shanara Gabrielle joins him as a bewitching courtesan crooning a number to welcome one and all into her lair.
Erik Paulson’s scenic design is a splendid homage to the Crescent City, complete with iron-rail balconies and potted flowers all bathed in luscious lighting provided by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz. Rusty Wandall’s sound design blends unobtrusively with Wilson’s piano. As for Margaret Weedon’s costumes, they’re a pleasure all unto their own, with their resplendent rainbow of hues and festive ornamentations immensely appealing.
The cast is uniformly splendid, energetic and generous to each other, allowing for a democratic convergence of talent and effort for the benefit of all. They include Lenny Wolpe as the woeful Egeon, Walter Hudson as the imperious Duke of Ephesus, Tina Fabrique as the scene-stealing, song-belting Abbess with a version of Amazing Grace that rocks the house, Jerry Vogel as the resident quack Dr. Pinch and a fire-and-brimstone preacher and Christopher Hickey in a couple of roles, including Dromio’s overly corpulent girlfriend, Nell.
Tarah Flanagan is delightful as Adriana, confused wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, and Kate Fonville is great fun as her available sister, Luciana. Chris Mixon and Doug Scholz-Carlson display expert comic timing and craft as Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse, while Michael Fitzpatrick and Christopher Gerson have considerable fun as Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus. Others adding to the reveille include Aaron Orion Baker, Evan Fuller, Jim Poulos, Ryan Fonville, Kurt Hellerich, Adrianna Jones, Dakota Mackey-McGee, Thomas Eric Morris, Joey Otradovec and Christina Ramirez.
Confused by The Bard’s Elizabethan humor? Worry not as you ride this City of New Orleans to its dazzling destination.
Play: The Comedy of Errors
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through April 8
Tickets: From $19; contact 968-4925 or repstl.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.