"Fast and furious" is a rather murky name for a federal gun-running scheme now under investigation by Congress, but it very aptly describes the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's current production of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, now wreaking havoc at the outdoor stage on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station!
Adopting the conventions of more modern farce—slamming doors, lots of running around—director Jason King Jones has come up with a totally satisfying and very funny version of this, probably the Bard's first play, that runs a family-friendly 95 minutes with one intermission. The energetic (and talented) cast is up to the task, stopping briefly for an airplane droning over head and for a longer period when a very noisy fireworks display erupted nearby. They came out onstage in character, looked at the sky in amazement, the actor playing the exorcist Dr. Pinch mimed some hocus-pocus and one wag in the audience stood up to sing the national anthem (and was joined by the entire audience). Even Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte was amused!
That King has directed the troupe's previous productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)and The Servant of Two Masters is evident in his deft handling of a ludicrous situation: two identical twin boys (both named Antipholus) and their identical twin servants (both named Dromio), separated years prior by a shipwreck, find themselves in the city of Ephesus, where one resides with his wife and household and the other runs the risk of being arrested as an illegal alien. Mayhem ensues when the visitor is mistaken for the resident—and vice versa—as are the two servants, to the audience's great delight. Adding to the fun is that both sets of actors resemble each other, especially the Dromios, in looks and physiques. (Left: Jack Moran as Dromio of Syracuse and Matthew Simpson as Antipholus of Syracuse celebrate their arrival in Ephesus.)
All this zaniness unfolds on a spectacular set designed by Charlie Calvert complete with docks, bridges and what looks like water and a rowboat that moves from side to side, atmospherically lit by Rachel Miner and sound by Rich Dionne (not the fireworks, planes or trains, though). Nancy Leary has dressed the characters in early 20th-century attire: the Antipholii in long brown coats, the women in summery peach dresses and the Dromios in tight black suits and porkpie hats reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin (they even walk like him). And the Keystone Kops are dressed like—well, Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops! What fun! (Right: Adriana, played by Amanda Duffy scolds Dromio of Ephesus, played by Sean Hudock, while her sister Luciana played by Allison Layman looks on. )
Philip Mutz (Antipholus of Ephesus) and Matthew Simpson (Antipholus of Syracuse) careen from rationality to near madness as confusion entraps and threatens to undo them. Both actors, graduates of the STNJ's Next Stage Ensemble and Shakespeare LIVE! touring company, are long and lean and very supple. They struggle mightily to maintain their characters' equanimity so it's great fun to watch them melt down. Sean Hudock (Dromio of Ephesus) and Jack Moran (Dromio of Syracuse) are masters of physical comedy reminiscent of the pratfalls of traditional commedia del'arte—to great comedic effect. The kids in the audience went nuts every time either actor landed on the floor.
Amanda Duffy has the less sympathetic role of Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus' shrewish wife, which she performs with great relish but eschews caricature. Duffy makes Adriana's feelings of abandonment when the stranger from Syracuse fails to respond to her wifely advances real and sympathetic. Allison Layman is hilarious as her priggish sister Luciana, all the more when she succumbs to Antipholus of Syracuse's advances with a passionate if unexpected kiss. Philip Christian's Duke of Ephesus is regal, while his portrayal of Dr. Pinch, much of it in mime, is absolutely side-splitting, especially his whirling dervish response to the fireworks. And Jay Liebowitz is his usual entertaining self: as the goldsmith Angelo, he's appropriately outraged at not being paid for a gold chain he gave to (the wrong) Antipholus; donning a fat-suit dress and wig, he brings down the house as the kitchen wench who has fallen for Dromio and pursues him with a vengeance. Able support is provided by Matt Sullivan as the Syracusan Egeon looking for his sons, Eileen Glenn as the Abbess and Rocio Mendez as a sexy courtesan. (Above: Philip Mutz as Antipholus of Ephesus schemes a plan with Angelo the goldsmith played by Jay Leibowitz.)
Director King has trimmed the text so the story is tight and focused; the action unfolds nonstop. Fart jokes and a revolving door (to substitute for farce's slamming doors) sequence will please theatergoers of all ages.
The Comedy of Errors is a treat for the entire family. Bring the kids; they'll love the pandemonium and physical comedy. And besides, it's a great introduction to Shakespeare. The Bard may not have gotten high marks for plot originality (indeed, this play is an adaptation of a Roman comedy by Plautus), but his addition of the twin servants raises what might have been plagiarism to high art. Do not miss this production, and help the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey celebrate its 50th Anniversary season!
The Comedy of Errors will be performed at the outdoor amphitheater on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth, 2 Convent Road (off Madison Avenue/Route 124) in Morris Township, through July 29th. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 8:15 PM with twilight shows on Sundays at 4:30 PM. The large lawn surrounding the theater is ideal for picnicking. Patrons may bring their own food and beverages or purchase snacks and soft drinks on-site. Audience members are encouraged to bring blankets and low beach chairs into the amphitheater; stadium seats are available for rental, and complimentary hand-held fans are provided. For tickets and information, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit online at www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
Photos ©Gerry Goodstein