The new season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland celebrates the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Included this spring are one of his earliest works, “The Comedy of Errors,” and “The Tempest,” the last play considered to be written by Shakespeare alone.
The Festival’s version of “The Comedy of Errors,” set during the exciting Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and performed in the small Thomas Theatre, is the most endearing, funniest production of the play I’ve ever seen.
A program note tells us that Harlem represents Shakespeare’s Ephesus and Louisiana is Syracuse. Shakespeare, inspired by Roman comedies about mistaken identity, expanded the hilarity by creating two sets of identical twins: two masters, both named Antipholus, and two servants, both called Dromio.
The first Antipholus and Dromio, separated from the family as babies in a shipwreck, are rescued and raised in Harlem. The second Antipholus and Dromio return home to Louisiana with Egeon, the father of the Antipholus twins. The mother is presumed dead.
When the second Antipholus and Dromio set out to find their lost brothers, they take so long that Egeon also sails for Harlem, where he is jailed and threatened with death. There’s a law that anyone from Louisiana who sets foot in Harlem shall hang.
Director Kent Gash brilliantly gives us a balance of serious and delirious. In this production the women are strong and resilient. The wife of the first Antipholus is a feminist yearning for equality. Her sister is intelligent and upright. The courtesan is a shrewd businesswoman, the abbess helps the needy, and Doctor Pinch, an exorcist, has been transformed into a Santoria priestess.
Because of quick entrances and exits, the two sets of twins are often played by two sets of actors. In this case Tobie Windham plays both Antipholus twins and Rodney Gardiner plays both Dromios. What joy they give us with their inventive interpretations and rapid changes of jackets and accents. It’s a happy surprise to hear Shakespeare’s words pronounced with a Louisiana accent.
The whole cast is superb and all the gags grow naturally out of the situation rather than being superficially imposed. And what the actors do with a rope is a lesson in creative stagecraft.
The costumes and effects are imaginative and gorgeous. The Duke is dazzling in leopard-trimmed evening clothes. The set is like a Roman stage, with three houses side by side, but representing different locales.
I promise it will be no error if you are lucky enough to see “The Comedy of Errors.”