The Comedy of Errors and The Boys From Syracuse are twins, but they're fraternal--not identical. The former is Shakespeare's shortest play--and possibly his first. It is a tale of twins, separated at birth, who are driven to distraction when their respective acquaintances mistake them for each other. The latter is an American musical comedy of 1938, adapted from Errors by the venerable George Abbott, with songs by Rodgers and Hart.
The ultimate parent of both works is the ancient Roman farce The Menaechmi, by Plautus. But Shakespeare, the audacious young hotshot of his day, decided to amplify both the complexity and the implausibility of the plot.
This he did by giving the twin masters, both of whom are named Antipholus, a similar pair of twin slaves, both named Dromio. The Dromios undergo a relay of beatings and abuse at the hands of the baffled Antipholi and anyone else who can't figure out what's going on. Shakespeare also layered on a suspense factor in the form of a subplot about the Antipholi's father, a Syracusian under a death sentence as an illegal alien in Ephesus, where the story takes place. Unless his sons learn of his plight and pay his fine, he's to be beheaded.
That's about as coherently as the story can be summarized--it's completely ludicrous, and is meant to be. Abbott, Rodgers and Hart followed it pretty closely for their version, but the language was updated to its 20th-century equivalent, the brassy verbal shenanigans of the vaudeville stage, and the songs are divinely silly '30s nonsense.
By a coincidence worthy of their own plot lines, both Errors and Boys are presented by local college-theatre companies, in almost simultaneous runs. Errors, at ASU, is a solid, gorgeously mounted rendering, full of beguiling touches by director Jared Sakren, and just about as ravishingly costumed--by resident designer Donna R. Bartz--as any play I've ever seen.
Bartz dresses the actors in Ottoman-style silks, fezzes and turbans, and ingeniously suggests the foreign status of the three Syracusians by putting them in early 20th-century Western suits. Offsetting the exoticism of the clothing is the elegant simplicity of Michael Marlowe's set: three doorways set in pale scrims and a sand-filled downstage resembling an archaeological dig, also convenient for pratfalls. A couple of carefully selected scenic elements--like the tiny porcupine above the door of a whorehouse called "The Porpentine"--adds all the character the setting needs.
The acting is spirited, if variable--the iambic pentameter gets a bit frayed here and there. The two female leads, Robin Hannenberg as the wife of the Ephesian Antipholus and Martha Slater as her sister, stand out. Hamilton Mitchell uses his fine voice well as the desperate old father.
As usual, the Dromios become the focus of audience sympathy; after a while, Shakespeare seems to be making a comment about the hard lot of servants. Ben Brittain and Hal Core (of Syracuse and Ephesus, respectively) are both winning, although an opening-night knee injury forced Core to sit out his more violent prats in the performance I saw. Brittain's high point is his sure-fire monologue--in geographical terms--on the grandeur of the rotund kitchen wench.
This Errors doesn't quite sustain itself for its full length. The first act builds up a beautiful head of steam, but the second act releases it too gently. Despite a well-staged chase scene and a magical final image, act two feels rather listless and droopy. At the end, when the perplexed Duke (Yvans Jourdain) is trying to sort out the matter, the various accounts he's hearing should have a hysterical drive; here, they plod.
Still, this letdown doesn't detract from the production's many felicities. There are some truly inventive gags, like the slide show with which the old father accompanies his initial outpouring of exposition. Director Sakren is clearly a clever fellow.
Grand Canyon University's production of The Boys From Syracuse, alas, isn't as good--in spite of a some high points and sweet, pleasant atmosphere. Before the performance, balloons were released into the house for the audience to bat around. I'd like to see that practice adopted as a standard preshow diversion.
Sadly, the show's problems are immediately evident. Or, rather, its one problem--any other faults might be overlooked, but the weakness of the vocals is ruinous. Whether because of acoustics, inexperience or both, large chunks of the songs simply can't be heard.
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The evening has a few pleasures, however. The set, by Paul B. Bridgeman, has a cartoonish cheeriness. Eddie Cantor might not have disdained to prance around on it. Scott G. Campbell shows some promise as Dromio of Ephesus--particularly during his "What Do You Do With a Man?" duet with the wench--and Michael J. Kary makes a funny, twerpy Angelo.
The show is dominated, however, by the three principal women--Suzanne White as the wife, Stacey Momeyer as the sister and Tia Shaun Leno as the kitchen wench. When these three join forces on "Sing for Your Supper," the show's one wholly successful number, it's enormously satisfying. This production could have been renamed The Girls From Ephesus.
The Comedy of Errors continues through Saturday, April 27, at Paul V. Galvin Playhouse in ASU's Nelson Fine Arts Center, Tenth Street and Mill in Tempe.
The Boys From Syracuse continues through Saturday, April 27, in Ethington Theatre at Grand Canyon University, 3300 West Camelback.