Review: ‘The Comedy of Errors’ at the American Shakespeare Center (Staunton, VA)

If you’re a fan of stand-up comedy, you know the highs and lows that come with artists working the crowd with fresh material they’ve been practicing for weeks. With their eyes on you and yours on theirs, the tension is thick; some of their stuff flies, some of it bombs, but it’s a risk well worth taking.

Topher Embrey, Josh Clark, Constance Swain, J.C. Long, and Kenn Hopkins Jr. Photo by Marek K. Photography

Consider, then, the challenges of reviving a string of stand-up and vaudeville routines over 400 years old. Sure, it brought down the house back in the day, but now? How on earth do you get laughs out of material that ancient?

You can almost hear the TV voice-over: “Call your doctor if you experience amusement lasting longer than Four. HundredYears.

And yet – we still love Shakespeare’s clowns, and his one-liners can still leave you rolling in the aisles. The Comedy of Errors has survived in various forms through the centuries, but to fully appreciate Shakespeare’s comic genius, you must experience it as originally intended—as a free-for-all with all the lights up, and pretexts galore for verbal jousting that leaves everyone in stitches.

American Shakespeare Center’s current touring production of The Comedy of Errors takes us back to the roots of our stand-up scene, to an open stage where performers freely interact with the audience, navigating with ease between the world of the play and our own, always on the look-out for a good gag. Director Desdemona Chiang has worked this ASC touring company to a fever pitch with no stone unturned and no turn unstoned. The frenetic pace with which the jokes fly is a testament to the assembled talent; the cast is one of the most finely-tuned comedy machines you’ll ever see.

For the uninitiated, the pretext for mayhem in The Comedy of Errors is two sets of identical twins, each of which has the same name—two guys named Antipholus, scions of a rich merchant family, and two more named Dromio, scions of a poor family who accompany the Antipholi (or Antopholuses, whatever) as servants. Both sets of twins, boss Antipholi and servant Dromii, were separated at birth (shipwrecks were a thing back then) and have grown up in separate cities—one pair in their native Syracuse, and the other in the brave new world of Ephesus. They have grown and prospered completely unbeknownst to each other, and are fated to reunite in Ephesus on the date in which the play takes place.

Oh, and Ephesus just hates Syracuse. If you’re a Syracusan in Ephesus you’re asking for trouble. Got it?

Naturally, the success of a production like this depends on the twins in question, and boy, have we got us some twins: Andrew Tung (sad-sack Antipholus) and Annabelle Rollison (a Carol Burnett-quality Dromio) do the Syracusans, while Josh Clark (a slapstick genius Antipholus) and Topher Embrey (a Dromio for all seasons) do the Ephesians. The antics these four get up to as they combine and recombine are brilliantly conceived and executed, proof that in this show the numerical and geometrical possibilities of mistaken identity can be hilariously high.

Supporting our Antipholi and Dromii is an equally tight cast, led by Constance Swain as Adriana, the harpy-like wife of the Antipholus of Ephesus. Adriana, clearly beside herself with fury because her husband never comes home for dinner, is not only a demonstration of the old line “hell hath no fury” but never has a woman scorned been so over-the-top funny. Swain hurls herself into the role, often literally, and her no-hurls-barred approach is of a piece with the hard work the rest of the ensemble has put into this.

Constance Swain and Hilary Alexa Caldwell. Photo by Marek K. Photography

Hilary Alexa Caldwell, meanwhile, offsets Swain’s Adriana by playing her younger sister, Luciana, as a bookish, bespectacled type who is clearly ready to ditch the books for the right guy. Her discreet sense of comedy is every bit an equal to Swain’s extremes, and her subtle flirtation with the man she thinks is her brother-in-law is a dream to watch.

As for the reason why Antipholus of Ephesus is late for dinner, well, Ally Farzetta plays up her role as his Courtesan. Her gangster-moll accent and her fetish for bling are priceless—and in no way prepare you for her turn as an Abbess at the climax of the show, executed with exquisite comic timing as well.

Costume Designer Jessica Van Essen has decked out the cast in fine 1930’s gear, with pinstripes for the rich brothers and soft cottons for the poor brothers, and beautifully-executed dresses for Adriana and Luciana which communicate their character’s inner life perfectly.

Last but by no means least: one of the unsung heroines of this particular touring company happens to be its understudy, Sophia Beratta, who filled in seamlessly in a variety of supporting roles on the night I saw this production. Understudies have to know the show like the back of their hand and be ready to hit the boards at a moment’s notice. From one night to the next they will have to fill in for any number of company members due to illness, injury, etc. Beratta has some serious chops y’all, so though I wish the company a glitch-free tour, you’ll have a rare treat in the event you get to see her work onstage as well.

Another musical treat: as with all ASC productions the show features a string of popular songs, ranging from lounge to rock to hip-hop, which begin a half hour before curtain and continue throughout the intermission. The song selection here, all played by the cast on acoustic instruments, fits the comic themes to a “t.” So my advice: when they come to the Alden Theatre at the end of March, plan on coming to the show really, really early to get the most out of this rollicking evening of theatre.

Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission.

NOTE: The Comedy of Errors is currently a part of ASC’s “Hand of Time Tour”, in repertory with The Winter’s Tale (see my review) and Sophocles’ Antigone.

The Comedy of Errors plays through March 31 at the American Shakespeare Theater performing at Alden Theatre at the McLean Community Center – 1234 Ingleside Avenue in McLean, VA. For tickets, go online.

For more information about the ASC’s “Hand of Time Tour” for Spring 2019, please visit their website.