Great Shakes 

The laughs fly fast and furious in The Comedy of Errors.

Tess Burgler as Luciana doubles her pleasure with twin Antipholuses, played by Andrew Cruse.
  • Tess Burgler as Luciana doubles her pleasure with twin Antipholuses, played by Andrew Cruse.
At most Shakespeare plays these days, patrons sit placidly, drowsily listening to the largely incomprehensible droning onstage. If they could be plopped down in an audience in Shakespeare's time, they would be shocked. By all accounts, it was often a rough-and-tumble assemblage, with much of the audience standing, bellied up to the stage as they laughed, hooted, and hissed at the characters. It was more like a spirited high-school basketball crowd than row upon row of semicomatose pseudo-sophisticates.

To feel a bit of what it would have been like to attend the Globe Theatre 400 years back, check out The Comedy of Errors, now being staged by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet Hall. Although everyone is given a comfortable chair, there is a restless feeling of spontaneity and fun in this production that makes you feel a bit intoxicated.

Most of the credit for this infectious energy goes to director Terry Burgler, who, true to his name, evidently stole old Will's soul and is now in the business of making those treasured words come alive onstage. Much like the old Carol Burnett Show on TV, the OSF shamelessly plays to and with the crowd (although blessedly without the character breaks that marked that sketch-comedy series), not stopping until they have worn you down and won you over.

Even so, Burgler and his company allow the script to speak for itself, not indulging in the artificial theatrical gimcrackery (shifted time frames, contemporary wardrobes, extraneous props) that so many production companies favor. No, here the words are king and, to a man and woman, the lines are spoken distinctly and with rich intent.

In the event that you've ever found it difficult to get into Shakespeare, or if you'd like to introduce a younger person to this treasure trove of language, it would be hard to find a better play than this one. The shortest of Shakespeare's efforts, Comedy is a romp of mistaken identities, neck-snapping double and triple takes, and the occasional boot up the butt.

As the carefully laid-out exposition explains, the wealthy merchant Egeon of Syracuse and his wife gave birth to twin sons, who were attended to by twin boy servants. But a shipwreck separated the whole family. One twin and his vassal were rescued and are growing up with Mom in Ephesus, while the other pair reached maturity with Dad in Syracuse. But since Egeon thought his wife, other son, and servant drowned, Pops decided to give his two charges the same names as the supposedly dead boys: Antipholus for the son and Dromio for the servant.

Of course both brothers and both servants, now four young men sharing the same two names, wind up in Ephesus. And since each pair is a mirror image of the other (and conveniently wear identical clothes), mass confusion ensues. One Dromio mistakes the wrong Antipholus for his master and vice versa, which causes some head-thrashings and hurt feelings. Then Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, and her sister Luciana get in the act, bringing the wrong Antipholus home to dinner while locking out the real hubby.

To heighten the disconnect, the two sets of twins are played by one actor per set for most of the play -- until the denouement, when all four characters are on stage at once. Andrew Cruse is adorable and hilarious as Antipholus One and Two, doing plenty of slow burns and one-eyed, brain-straining squints as he tries to fathom what the hell is going on in this crazy town. He is matched laugh for laugh by Ernie Gonzalez as both Dromios. Even though he fluffs some words, Gonzalez maintains a consistent look of simple bafflement that makes his bushelful of gag lines even more effective.

It's hard to imagine anyone not being amused by Dromio as he disgustedly relates his encounter with a corpulent kitchen wench who has her eyes set on him. "(She is) no longer from head to foot than from hip to hip. She is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her." Then he and his master take an imaginary tour of the world on her unseen body -- if you're curious, Ireland is apparently located in her buttocks.

Lara Mielcarek is also excellent as Adriana, feasting on her lines like they were a juicy Porterhouse steak and cleaning them down to the gleaming bone with sharply enunciated attacks. As her sister Luciana, Tess Burgler contributes a lovely mien, but little in the way of a defined character.

This Ohio Shakespeare Festival production proves that you don't need to think outside the box to make the Bard's plays thoroughly captivating. You just need to explore all the wonders inside the intricate container the immortal playwright created.

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