Presumed by many to be Shakespeare's first play, The Comedy of Errors is a terrible comedy. Based on an ancient Roman farce written by Plautus 1,800 years or so before Shakespeare, the plot is so mechanical and the exposition so cumbersome, it is amazing a writer of any skill would give it a second glance. We must suppose young Will, an apprentice actor, saw a role for himself in it. It's a miracle his writing career did not end right there.

The borrowed plot unfolds tediously, like a shaggy-dog story. Egeon and his wife, Emilia, have no sooner celebrated the birth of twin sons than they discover that a servant woman has likewise borne twins. Both sets of twins are separated in a storm at sea, and are borne to unknown and disparate destinations. Years pass before one of the boys, Antipholus, and his servant Dromio bid farewell to Egeon, and leave Syracuse to search for their lost twin brothers. Seven years later, when the boys from Syracuse have not returned, Egeon sets out to find them, and winds up in Ephesus, where he is arrested because Syracusians are not permitted in Ephesus. We are only now to the point where the play begins.

See what I mean by convoluted plotting? Mysteriously, the two master twins are both named Antipholus and both slaves are named Dromio. No explanation of this curious coincidence is ever offered. If Will were a sophomore in playwriting class, he would get his knuckles rapped for less. What ensues is a farce of mistaken identities until this one-joke play is run into the ground. Since the principal characters all know of the existence of double twins, why in the world does it take them so long to realize what is happening? In fact, no one even has a hint until the brothers are brought face to face, and the entire cast utters "Aha!" in unison. In what is an apparently unintended irony, this is the opening production of the Southwest Shakespeare Company, which last spring split by osmosis from its twin, the Arizona Shakespeare Festival, amid much rancor, and with charges and countercharges almost as convoluted as the plot of this play. SSC has now settled into both the home and the financial support formerly enjoyed by ASC, and the transformation is as confusing as the boys from Ephesus losing a gold chain to their counterparts from Syracuse.

Fortunately for the 300 or so patrons who braved the elements last Saturday night and shivered through two hours of this nonsense, the production has been adroitly directed by John King. A resident member of SSC, King has used a chorus of masked "spirits" to clarify, amplify and rectify much of the unintelligible action, giving us something interesting to watch when the acting downstage isn't. These "spirits" mirror much of the play in dumb show and offer witty physical commentary throughout. Jerry S. Hooker has designed a handsome setting with three doors, two windows and four doorways split between two levels, giving ample speed and style to the demands of farcical staging. Lee Geller's lights are romantic yet festive, and lend an air of adventure to the proceedings. BethAnne Humphreys has designed costumes not of a particular period, but somehow always appropriate to the wacky world of this play. Best of all is an original score by Jason Spishock that perfectly sets the mood and yet deepens our appreciation of a humanity below the slick surface that Shakespeare was able to suggest only much later with his more mature comedies, Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Unfortunately, Spishock's music cannot quite make up for his amateurish performance as Balthasar, the only truly wretched part of the evening.

As for the rest of the cast members, they are, on the whole, quite capable of the outrageous bag of tricks King has up his sleeve. I suppose it is inevitable that one will prefer Ben Tyler over James Ward and Keith Wick over Mark Tiemeyer, but this is splitting heirs. Suzy Newman as the wife Adriana does a fine comic turn exasperatedly summarizing the ridiculous plot, and gets a deserved hand. Helen Hayes is a winning Luciana, although she waddles somewhat gracelessly.

I suppose we can now look forward to the recovery of the other lost twin, the Arizona Shakespeare Festival, which has been tossed overboard at Mesa Amphitheatre and may turn up later this season at some other location. The twin Shakespeare companies plan rival productions of Julius Caesar this season, so beware the ides of March!

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Marshall W. Mason