There’s a sense of occasion with the new Good Company Players production of “The Comedy of Errors” at the 2nd Space Theatre. It’s been more than 20 years since Shakespeare graced the GCP stage, and this beautifully designed production feels like an important event. GCP has a fiercely loyal cadre of season subscribers, a fair number of whom I’m guessing don’t see theater anyplace else, so it’s quite possible that for some, this will be their first Shakespeare experience. That’s exciting.
Director J. Daniel Herring has certainly made it easy for those first-timers to follow the action, which is basically the mother of all identical-twins-separated-at-birth storylines. Herring reimagines the tale in the style of Commedia dell’arte, which is best known today for its “stock” characters such as the Arlecchino, aka the acrobatic and witty Harlequin.
We learn the basics in an expository opening scene featuring a wandering father named Egeon (a hearty Henry Montelongo), who lost track of his twin sons — and the twin servants attending each — in a mishap that left each twin unaware of his sibling.
Egeon doesn’t know that one master-and-servant pair ended up living in Ephesus, the city he’s just landed in, and the other master-and-servant pair has just gotten into town. Let the mistaken-identity games begin. (If a screenwriter tried something like this today, it’d be an Adam Sandler movie.)
The Italian bands of actors who performed in the Commedia style would roll into a town, set up a stage in its square and put on a show. Many in the hard-working cast play double roles — just as a band of traveling actors would do. David Pierce’s handsome and versatile wooden stage, set against a village-style backdrop, offers a keen sense of place. You feel like you’re in the square with the actors.
We’re constantly reminded of the stock Commedia characters because of Herring’s emphatic focus on the physicality of this show, which has his characters prancing, stomping, skipping and flitting with choreographed glee. But the most obvious reminder is the distinctive costumes. (Even if you swear you’ve never heard of a Harlequin, you’ll recognize him for sure because of the diamond-shaped patterns on his outfit.) Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes are, in a word, ravishing — a boisterous and eclectic collection of sumptuous designs that come together to form a truly beautiful ensemble.
The Commedia style also means there’s a sense of the performers having to “sell” the show — of making it accessible to even a casual audience member in the town square wandering by. (Staging a sword fight that resembles a limbo contest certainly helps.) It doesn’t take much to lose that audience member if the action isn’t forceful and the narrative hard to understand, so the Commedia style isn’t exactly known for its nuance. Some of the best performances in the production are big and blustery, from Brooke Aiello’s jolly, droopy-mustached turn as the Duke to Kevin Carrillo and Heather B. Rule’s goofy interpretations of frazzled merchants.
Erica Riggs is a strong Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus (Ken Stocks), one of the twins. And Patrick Tromborg is in fantastic form as the Abbess, who should always be a scene-stealing delight. (If you see a “Comedy of Errors” where you aren’t rolling in laughter at the Abbess, something’s wrong.)
In the leading roles of the servant twins, Brianne Janae Vogt (as Dromio of Ephesus) and Danielle Valdivia (as Dromio of Syracuse), are wonderfully in sync, both giving a scampering, cocked-heel exuberance to their much-put-upon characters.
The separated-twin “masters” aren’t as well matched. A perky and accomplished Matthew Rudolf Schiltz (as Antipholus of Syracuse) gives a strong performance, but Ken Stocks (as Antipholus of Ephesus) struggles with the stylized Commedia demands of his role. So does Anmoni “Nikki” Purewal, who plays Luciana, sister to Adriana. As the run progresses, hopefully these two performers will loosen up and join the party.
Making the committment to Commedia dell’arte can be strenuous, and there were some weak spots at the opening-weekend performance I attended. One example: the famed scene in which the harried Dromio of Syracuse tries to describe the “spherical”-shaped kitchen wench who has her eye on him. (She’s shaped like a globe — “I could find countries in her,” he says, bringing his master to ask where the Netherlands are.) Instead of snappy and bawdy fun, the scene just sort of dribbled on in a lethargic way.
But the low points are few. I’m impressed with this production’s sparkling design and its commitment to the Commedia style, and the last scenes build with the manic comic energy you expect from a very silly Shakespeare comedy. For those patrons of Good Company Players who have been without the Bard too long, it’s an easy immersion in a classic play.