A Comedy of Errors by The Acting Company at the Guthrie Theater

Jamie Smithson (Pinch), Jason McDowell-Green (Antipholus of Ephesus) and Stephen Pilkington (Dromio of Ephesus) in William Shakespeare’s THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, directed by Ian Belknap. Photo: Michal Daniel.

The Guthrie Theater and The Acting Company, NYC, have launched another tour with two Shakespeare classics, sure to turn out legions of secondary students charged with reading Romeo and Juliet in English class. Or Comedy of Errors, in this case. That is a wonderful thing, and this production will above all make Shakespeare not only understandable but clearly demonstrate that The Bard could be very funny. You might call it, “Shakespeare does stand-up.”

However, it was telling that the large group of high school students at this performance laughed at every joke – as if on cue – but didn’t laugh at anything else. That’s because the jokes themselves were funny; the rest was flat. Blocking, outside of the visual gags, was static and ponderous, strangely disconnected from the carefully timed lazzi. Though the telling of it showed a flawless understanding of the text, line delivery lapsed into a studied and intellectualized rhythm that forced the jokes to get things rolling – again.

Stephen Pilkington as Dromio of Ephesus most naturally portrayed the spirit of fun that suits the show; John Skelley as Dromio of Syracuse joined in with ease. Jamie Smithson’s Pinch was a curious mish-mash of clown, gospel preacher and conjurer, but it sure worked to generate some activity with (needed) Commedia-style zaniness.

But too often characters related to each other from across the stage at moments where relationships – budding and disintegrating – might have been intensified. A modern audience is not likely to be convinced of a young man’s ardor for a woman he’s only just met (Antipholus and Luciana) or a wife and mother’s happy reunion (Amelia) with acres of space anchoring the interaction.

In an effort to avoid the predictable, it appeared, Whitney Hudson, who would have been a convincing Amelia, played Adriana, and Kaliswa Brewster, who would have created a much more interesting dynamic as Adriana, played Amelia, the Abbess. You can cast a man as Adriana, for all I care, but it has to add something to the fun and excitement. This was a casting faux pas. I wondered if Hudson had simply showed up for the wrong play.

Worse, Amelia was made to stand down center and recite Shakespeare’s lines (to perfection, I will admit) while her long-lost husband (never mind her two sons!) stood behind her, immobile. Oh, joy?

The set I have to say was downright homely; the costuming a head scratcher – except for the Dromios. In truth, the whole thing was somewhat lost on the McGuire’s giant proscenium stage, framed by a deadly green backdrop that finally proved useful in the end, housing the door to the Abbey. Colored cloth on curtain rings swathed the stage on various planes, pulled to and fro to indicate scene changes. That was a reasonably clever idea, but it would have been much more interesting if color differentiations had indicated place to some degree. More to the point, it locked in the movement from left to right, offering little opportunity for upstage/downstage or diagonal movement. Peculiar.

Riddled with pratfalls (a running gag that really worked) the things that tripped up this performance fall at the feet of director Ian Belknap and his puzzling choices.

Comedy of Errors runs through January 30. The national tour runs through April 17.

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