Presented with vaudevillian shtick and plenty of youthful energy, the Guthrie Theater and Acting Company production of The Comedy of Errors should be an end-to-end delight. Instead, the show—now running on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium before embarking on a tour—is a mixed bag, hitting the nail on the head during the comic moments but having the action dragged down by far too deliberate acting. In the company's zeal to make every word understandable, they sometimes completely miss in sharing those words' meanings.
The Comedy of Errors is the Shakespeare comedy with two sets of identical twins causing chaos via mistaken identity. The situation is set out pretty clearly in the opening, and several times throughout, that there are two sets of identical brothers. The siblings were separated early in life by a shipwreck, with one master and servant, Antipholus and Dromio, settling in Ephesus, while the other, also named Antipholus and Dromio, being raised by their father in Syracuse. This set left home years before to search for their other halves, and soon after, the father followed. Now, all parties are in Ephesus, with a death sentence hanging over the Syracusan father's head and a quartet of increasingly befuddled young men who constantly find themselves confused for one another.
Got it? Really the key is this: two sets of twins who are constantly mistaken for the other. Confusion ensues.
Shakespeare drew on a pair of ancient Roman plays for his story of confused identity and went to the Greeks for the structure, setting all of the action in a single day. Director Ian Belknap intensifies the speed by cutting this already short comedy down to a single 90-minute act. Add in a simple set design from Neil Patel that focuses the attention completely on the action, and you have a piece that should race along at the pace of a top-notch farce.
At times it does—especially when the mismatched sets of twins are dragged along by events they really don't fathom. Other times, the pace drags as the actors pick over every word of Shakespeare's text, careful to make every syllable clear to the listener. While it may help us to discern the words, it makes it hard to pick up the meaning.
This happens from time to time throughout the cast, but the worst offenders are Jamie Smithson as the Duke and Whitney Hudson as Adriana, the shrewish wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. Smithson's too-slow, almost halting delivery threatens to derail the production in its earliest moments, while Hudson's complaints and asides are delivered so stiffly I thought she was preparing a reading for a speech competition rather than acting on the Guthrie stage.
However, the comedy eventually wins out, especially in the vaudevillian acts of the two Dromios (played by John Skelly and Stephen Pilkington), who bear the brunt of much of the physical comedy (often at the hands of the Antipholi). Both actors engage in this with lots of gusto, never missing a chance to sell a pratfall or other painful action.
Their characters also engage in a lot of the play's signature wordplay, with Pilkington getting the best of it with his description of the cook who has wooed his twin. Even though the allusions he uses—comparing parts of her body to different countries—are steeped in 16th-century politics, his delivery still wrestles plenty of laughs out of the bit.
Also solid are Jonathan C. Kaplan and Jason McDowell-Green as their masters. McDowell-Green, as the aggrieved Ephesus native, makes the most of his situation, showing us a character driven to the very brink by the madness that has befallen his comfortable life in a single afternoon.
Other standout moments feature Sid Solomon, who plays the goldsmith Angelo with all the charm of a time-traveling castaway from Jersey Shore, and Smithson, who makes up for the halting duke with an absolutely mad portrayal of the quack doctor Pitch. It's these performances—and the high-quality comedy of the source material—that make this Comedy of Errors eventually a winner.