Apparently, William Shakespeare thought four is the way to go, because when he decided to riff on Roman playwright Plautus’s Menaechmi, a mistaken identity comedy about a set of twins separated and raised apart, he threw in a second set of twins to allow for even more wacky hijinks to ensue. And ensue they do in the Houston Shakespeare Festival’s production of Comedy of Errors.
The backstory here is that Aegeon, a Syracusan, has been arrested in Ephesus, which has a strict “no dogs or Syracusans allowed” policy, while searching for his missing son, Antipholus. Aegeon actually has twin sons, both named Antipholus, with twin servants, both named Dromio, that were separated years before. His search for the missing twin has brought him to Ephesus where, in fact, the missing Antipholus (and the missing Dromio) live. At the same time, the Syracusan Antipholus also arrives in Ephesus with the Syracusan Dromio, neither aware that Aegeon, the missing Antipholus, and the missing Dromio are already there. Cue the mistaken identity hijinks with the Antipholi and Dromios; the Ephesian Antipholus’s pregnant wife, Adriana; her sister, Luciana; a goldsmith, Angelo; a courtesan; and a couple of merchants, all becoming increasingly confused and increasingly irate.
Director Jack Young leads a clearly game cast through this fast-paced farce with a strong hand, unafraid to commit to silly gags, crazy slapstick, and unexpectedly sporty, cartwheeling transitions while occasionally winking at the audience for good measure. It’s a light and playful production, as is Jonathan Middents’s sea port set, which proves to be the perfect background for one dizzyingly ditzy day.
The sound was much improved from the first night of the Houston Shakespeare Festival, important because it would be a shame to miss Sound Designer Jesse Gustin’s continuous wacky sound effects, which accompany different gags and the Three Stooges-like slapstick of Crash Buist and Andrew Garrett.
Buist, as the Antipholi, and Garrett, as the Dromios, are careful to draw clear distinctions between their Syracusan and Ephesian characters, the differences apparent even without the help of an accent. Though the accents in this production, across the board, are out of control in the best possible way. Like everything else in the show, they’re big and exaggerated, and they take you around the world, from Syracuse, which is apparently in the American Midwest, to Scotland.
Though one Antipholus seems more inclined to go with the flow, the other is reaching his breaking point, and Buist plays them both well. Garrett, as the endlessly put-upon Dromios, is incredibly sympathetic and very funny throughout. He and Buist share a great rapport and have their timing down. Though Garrett suffers the most abuse in the play, everyone seems to get a chance to spend some time knocked to the floor in this one.
The rest of the cast has a lot of fun as a variety of stock characters that support Buist and Garrett. Shannon Uphold is aggressive and pregnant, coming on strong to the man she thinks is her husband. Victoria Reibel briefly gets to belt out a ‘90s diva standard. Carlton Warnberg goes from goldsmith to nun. Heidi Hinkel turns up the sass as a Southern belle prostitute. Derrick Moore gets some laughs as an attitude-having Balthazar and slap fights as a merchant. And by the way, Hinkel and Moore, as Uno and Dose, also open the show with an energetic rap that really sets the stage for the production’s irreverence.
Comedy of Errors was Shakespeare’s first comedy, and it’s a doozy, even for the Bard. Luckily, the Houston Shakespeare Festival’s production is a doozy, too.
Performances continue at 8:15 p.m. on August 1,3 and 5 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. For more information, visit houstonfestivalscompany.com or milleroutdoortheatre.com. Free.