The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare's shortest play, and his most farcical – but from the very first scene, when a headman helpfully uses his axe as a pointer for an impromptu geography lesson and the hapless Egeon re-enacts his tragic backstory with the help of his prison guards, two ushers, and props from his trunk marked “Egeon and Son(s?) – Novelties”, director Russell Treyz and the cast of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival prove they are determined not to let the play's sometimes trivialized reputation get in the way of comedy.
The Syracusan Egeon has been arrested and condemned in Ephesus during the middle of his search for his son Antipholus and his servant Dromio, who themselves are searching for their long-lost twins (also named Antipholus and Dromio) and Egeon's wife, Emilia, missing since the tragic shipwreck that tore the family asunder. Basing his play on Plautus' The Menaechmi, Shakespeare doubles the mayhem with two sets of twins undergoing escalating cases of mistaken identities, and the PSF gleefully takes this insanity and runs with it, right into the audience and out the back exit.
While the audience must rely on the magic of the theater to accept that the Antipholi and Dromiones are totally interchangeable (though in truth the players aren't bad matches), the Syracusan team noticeably dominates the acting. Steve Burns (formerly of the hit children's TV show Blue's Clues) as Dromio of Syracuse has an excellent command of the language, comic timing, and slapstick stunts that are the highlight of a likewise gifted ensemble. Ian Bedford as Antipholus of Syracuse musters a similar excellence to match him, and the two make a highly entertaining comic duo. Another notable pair is Eleanor Handley as Adriana and Lauren Orkus as Luciana, siblings united in adversity (though not beyond engaging in sisterly spats); the former tries to find reason in an increasingly unreasonable world, but keeps dissolving into genuinely funny fits of hysteria, while the latter meets each bizarre plot twist with a cheerful and incongruous perkiness. This production runs on team efforts, for good or ill, and the roughest spots were from Carl N. Wallnau as Egeon and Brandon Meeks as the Duke of Ephesus, who seemed less adept firing off their dialogue while directing prop comedy pageants or being gnawed upon by their co-stars.
Treyz has set his production in “Fable-land”, and costume designer Marla Jurglanis provides lavish costumes to match: gorgeous period-inspired numbers that illustrate the owners' wealth and influence, with a few nods to the multiculturalism of the Renaissance Mediterranean. (The ladies' strappy sandals, however, strike an unfortunately discordant modern note.) The twin sets of Syracuse and of Ephesus, and their respective love interests, are color-coded in purple and green for the audience's viewing convenience. While this is a production rife with fantastic hats, special note must be paid to the ladies' headgear. Adriana is bedecked in a splendid antler-like tiara, while her rival for her husband's affections, the courtesan, sports a be-tasseled crescent moon headdress: a subtle visual gag to compliment Shakespeare's frequent references to the horns of a cuckold.
The Schubert Theater has a small thrust stage, closely surrounded by the audience on three sides, but the production makes very efficient use of the space. The only furniture is two benches, allowing plenty of room for the free-roaming actors to stomp, fight, or crawl across the stage, as well as off it. Bob Phillips's set design continues the aesthetic of Fable-land – the stage and back wall are decorated in brightly-colored patterns, with the latter also sporting two levels of mismatched windows and any number of hidden doors – a visually stimulating design that fits the show's energetic air.
Energy seems key to Russell Treyz's vision. He matches Shakespeare's rapid-fire banter and wordplay with some excellent physical comedy – from Three Stooges-esque fight scenes to scatological shadow puppetry to the aforementioned prop comedy opening scene – and exuberant performances from the cast. The audience is literally pulled into the production, starting with the ushers conscripted to provide the special effects for Egeon's tale of woe, and continued by actors invading the aisles and seats, designating a bald theatergoer as Father Time, mocking someone else's beard, and borrowing programs to establish that he who keeps the prison is, indeed, named Adam (Adam DeLancey, in his debut with the PSF). However, whenever the energy subsides, the Schubert's intimate space can become a liability – the blocking in several scenes resulted in uninterrupted views of actors' backs, sometimes completely obscuring another actor. When at least half the fun of this production relies on the actors' physicality, the loss of line of sight is a grievous blow.
Being a relatively simple Shakespearean comedy (if such a thing truly exists), The Comedy of Errors lends itself well to creative liberties in parallel with the original text, and the PSF takes full advantage, pairing Shakespeare's dialogue with fantastic slapstick, numerous visual gags, and even some low-key improvisation. They are larger-than-life performances for a larger-than-life production, and an excellent showcase for the Festival's twentieth anniversary.