by Bernard Reed
There are a lot of things to like about Shakespeare, not least of which is the flexibility of his plays. The Arkansas Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Comedy of Errors” has certainly taken advantage of this flexibility to come up with a loudly colorful and goofily anachronistic show.
“The Comedy of Errors” is one of Shakespeare’s first plays and has long been considered by scholars to lack academic depth — a quality that any tired English student might find very appealing. It tells the story of Antipholus of Syracuse and his slave, Dromeo, arriving in Ephesus, the former looking for his long lost brother; the brother turns out to be an identical twin, also named Antipholus, who is accompanied by his own servant, the identical twin of Dromeo. The presence of these two pairs of twins results in a cavalcade of humorous mishaps, replete with mistaken identities and a full serving of slapstick gags.
Which is one of the production’s strong points, at least for those who like slapstick: There’s a lot of theatrically cartoonish beating-up of Dromeo, the show’s punching bag, who flops about on stage as though he was made of rubber (as though they were made of rubber, that is). That’s another part of this show that’s executed very cleverly — rather than use separate actors for each twin, requiring greater suspension of disbelief from the audience, there’s only one actor for both Antipholuses and both Dromeos. The problem of the twins confronting each other in the final scene is craftily resolved in a gag that stays in line with the wackiness of the rest of the show.
And wacky it certainly is. The costumes, in bright colors, don’t adhere to any particular setting or period, and the cast is followed around by a pair of bouncing minstrels who act as a kind of vaudevillian chorus. One feature that might annoy some is the lack of any theme to the setting — Ephesus has been updated to a vaguely Southern small town in the early 20th century, but the characters seem to exist in some indefinable Shakespearean ether, conforming more to quirky caricatures than the demands of their setting. But Shakespeare is flexible, after all, and this is a play about the farcical committing of errors.
It’s an amusing bit of Shakespeare, to be sure, and if you want to expose your kids to the bard but don’t think that “Henry V,” the Festival’s other option, is quite the right entry point to his oeuvre, “The Comedy of Errors” will work just fine. It shows again June 26 at 7 p.m. and July 3 at 2 p.m.