Sometimes you just want to laugh. Shakespeare’s plays can often feel heavy, weighted down by all of the deep introspective emotional exploration, the complex political intrigue, and the burning passion, not to mention all the murder and death (I’m looking at you Titus Andronicus). And while the best of Shakespeare’s plays consist of great drama interspersed with great comedy, sometimes all an audience really needs is to sit back and laugh their heads off for ninety minutes.
The Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s production of The Comedy of Errors, performed at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, accomplishes this goal. While the text of the play is funny, the fantastic acting and creative directing in this production make this play hilarious. Given that the play is about sets of identical twins, it is not surprising that the play’s strength is in interactions between different sets of characters paired together and then playing off each other throughout the play. Whether it is Charlie T. Thomas and Adam King as the Syracusean Antipholus and Dromio, Andrew Houchins and J.L. Reed as their counterparts in Ephesus, the sisters Jennifer Lamourt and India Tyree, and even the more minor characters of the goldsmith and merchant played by Matt Nitchie and Dani Herd, all of these pairs of actors have such great chemistry with each other that there is not a dull scene in the play.
While the scenery and costumes at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse are always traditional, I did appreciate that the actors were not afraid to include modern day mannerisms and accents in this production (Chris Heckle’s portrayal of Pinch as an evangelical exorcist was particularly hilarious). Likewise, the actors were not shy about interacting with the audience. Just like the play, the actors did not take themselves too seriously. Which is not to say that any of their performances were "phoned in." On the contrary, this play about physical appearance is full of physical comedy that was clearly well thought out and well rehearsed. Physical comedy can be tricky in any production. Too often it can be used simply to get what might be thought of as an easy laugh from an audience, and it often feels forced and unnecessary. But when done well and at the right moment, it will have the audience rolling on the floor. The actors in this production pulled off the physicality needed in a performance better than any I have seen in a long time.
This great chemistry among the actors, the effective use of physical comedy, and the well-organized management of numerous actors on the stage at once, all speak to the quality of Jaclyn Hofmann’s direction. At the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, with its intimate audience space and classic stage structure, it can be difficult for a director to find different and creative ways of telling the story. Without access to extra-special special effects or large set pieces, a director at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse must be innovative if they want to tell an old story in a new way. Hofmann’s direction was impressive from the beginning of the play. As the play opens with Aegeon, on the upper stage, telling of the break up of his family at sea, a backlit screen appears below him on the main stage and shadows appear acting out the story as he tells it. This technique has the effect of creating a live flashback occuring on stage. While Steve Hudson is very good as Aegeon, this flashback enables the audience to more fully understand what is going on at the start of the play and keeps the audience engaged throughout a lengthy soliloquy. Later on in the play, when the two Dromios are arguing with one another on the opposite sides of Antipholus’ front door, Hofmann puts one Dromio outside of a door on Stage Right and puts the other Dromio outside of a door on Stage Left. This split-screen effect allows the audience to get a 360 degree view of the action when otherwise one of the Dromios would just have to be yelling from offstage. These are just two examples of how an imaginative director can use a space effectively to enhance the drama and comedy of a play.
The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and believed to be one of his simplest. There is no great character study, no deep themes explored, and no biting political commentary. At times, this play feels less like a work of Shakespeare and more like an extra-long episode of an extra-special sitcom. However, it is this simplicity and this devotion to pure comedy above anything else that emphasizes the importance of this play in Shakespeare’s canon. Shakespeare does not have to be a heavy, dark, and overly emotional experience to be entertaining. Sometimes the audience just wants to laugh and as Shakespeare knew, probably better than anyone, it is best to give the audience what they want.