The Comedy of Errors: Fun Delivered Amid a Fervor of Mistaken Identities

Check out our interview with Mark Metcalf and Cindy Pickett while they were in rehearsal. The setup: The great one, Shakespeare, goes positively loony in this early work, circa 1594. He takes his source from Roman comedian Plautus and ups the ante exponentially, doubling the original set of identical twins, Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, by adding into the mix two identical twin servants, both of course named Dromio. This makes for countless mistaken identities that motor the play into delicious low-comedy territory, reaping gales of laughter as loud as any heard from Elizabethan England. This is whiz-bang, antic playwriting that whirls and spins, hypnotizing us with shiny mechanics and unflagging cheery manner. This play crackles with fun.

Houston Shakespeare Festival shuffles its talented ensemble cast, so that the supporting players from Hamlet become the stars for Comedy. Director Paul Steger sets the play in wild west Galveston, giving the Bard a nice Texas twang and another neat twist to this pretzel-like comedy. You could set this play on the Moon and it would still be funny. It's wonderfully silly, and Shakespeare must have been in a very good mood when he wrote it.

If, as some scholars have speculated, The Comedy of Errors is his first play, he arrived in London fully formed, his genius apparent for all to see. (As history's greatest playwright, Shakespeare is virtually unknown to us, with the least amount of historical data this side of Jesus.) Yet here he is, a glover's son from backwater Stratford, writing his first work that has outlived his more-revered rivals, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, Philip Marlowe. It's nothing short of extraordinary. It's no surprise that every decade or so, some fool postulates the wacko theory that Shakespeare didn't write his plays. All of his contemporary playwrights called him by name and gave him credit, and that's good enough proof for us.

The execution: Shakespeare's magnificent voice is in full flower in this early work, if not rounded with the staggering genius that would appear not too much later in his career. He has a ball with Comedy. In HSF's update, Egeon (Mark Metcalf), a rich merchant from Houston, has come to Galveston looking for his long lost sons, separated at birth by shipwreck. He's arrested and given one day to make amends or he will hang.

Unbeknownst to him, both twin sons (David Matranga and Jon Egging) and their twin servants (H.R. Bradford and Joshua Kyle Hoppe) are also in Galveston, Antipholus of Houston having just arrived looking for his twin brother. Needless to say, complications ensue as scene by scene, one brother and his servant are constantly mistaken for the others. That Antipholus of Galveston is married gives Shakespeare many opportunities to parody fidelity, as the unmarried twin rebuffs the wife (Annie Rubino) but falls for her sister (Amelia Hammond).

Servant Dromios are constantly beaten for doing just what they're told to do by their masters, but they always return to the wrong brother to receive yet another kick in the ass. There's much business having to do with a gold chain not paid for, a ring given to another woman, wayward plans for a quick departure, a piece of rope, and the wife's maid (Carolyn Johnson) who's taken a fancy to Dromio from Houston, prompting one of Shakespeare's funniest scenes, in which Dromio describes the rotund Luce ("as in loose," he drawls) as various countries of the world. The puns were groaners at the time of the Globe, but they still delight with bawdiness.

In their comic Black Bart outfits with matching gunslinger moustaches, Matranga and Egging bring out all the comedy and place it front and center, filling their characters with slow burns, double takes and ever-varied expressions of astonishment at the craziness of it all.

Bradford and Hoppe, as their Dromios, are even better as the archetypes of the glib, put-upon second bananas who have been a standard in comedy ever since...well, since Shakespeare. Their timing is exquisite, and their bantering patter is rat-a-tat like gunshot. Neither misses. Rubino, as spurned wife Adriana, plays her without too much subtlety, as if in a sitcom; meanwhile, Carolyn Johnson, as randy Luce, hams it up like Mammy Yokum -- which is a good thing, when you witness the preciseness of Miss Johnson's ham; and veteran Ruddy Cravens, so memorable on alternate nights as fuddy duddy Polonius in Hamlet, again lights up the stage in the small role of Solinus, Mayor of Galveston.

Greg Cote, as Angelo the goldsmith, finds the right tinge of annoyed exasperation with the ever-compounding gold chain episode; and Leraldo Anzaldua, as snake-oil salesman Pinch, has his golden moment when he attempts exorcism on Antipholus, who's saner than all of them, just very confused. But, once again, Ms. Pickett, a misplaced Gertrude in Hamlet, has trouble finding her way through the role of abbess Emilia, lost wife of Egeon and mother to both Antipholuses. She flubs her recognition scene, and her mike cut in and out annoyingly. (In this day of state-of-the-art equipment and masterful digital sound, must we be plagued with errant microphones that crackle and pop under the least movement?)

The verdict: Full of picturesque fun, The Comedy of Errors, under the tutelage of Houston Shakespeare Festival, is a delight to behold. This production would make Shakespeare laugh. It certainly charmed the audience. If anything played outdoors can make us forget the heat, this and its fellow Hamlet are the ones. With a decided western twang, Shakespeare's eternal cartoon, with its underpinning about finding one's identity, plays August 8, 10 and 12, 8:30 p.m., at Miller Outdoor Theatre, Hermann Park. Tickets are free, with open seating on the hill. For the covered seating area, free tickets are available at the box office the day of the performance between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. For more information, visit the theater's website or call 281-823-9103.