In the not too distant future, all of New Jersey’s theaters will be fully functioning again. And not too long after that, I bet, we’ll have new productions reflecting or directly inspired by the pandemic and the political and social turmoil of the last few years. They will be deep and moving and meaningful.
For the moment, though, I don’t think you’re going to find a better theater experience in the state than the light-as-air confection that the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is presenting at the outdoor theater at the College of St. Elizabeth in Florham Park, through Aug. 1: its expertly crafted production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.” It’s gleefully silly and totally irresistible. Even the brightly colored set and costumes (by Baron Pugh and Paul Canada, respectively) seemed designed to lift spirits.
The Shakespeare Theatre presents plays annually on this stage, though it had to skip last year, of course. It still persevered, though, with smaller, socially distanced shows at a smaller Back Yard Stage at its Thomas H. Kean Theatre Factory (which is used for rehearsals, office space and storage), also in Florham Park.
“The Comedy of Errors” — which is running in repertory with a new play, “Snug” (see review here) — has suffered some logistical setbacks of its own, including a delayed opening after the set suffered storm damage, and multiple cancellations due to the weather. But still, the Shakespeare Theatre has been able to get a full production up and running before most of New Jersey’s other theater companies (many reopenings are now being planned for the fall), and that’s no small feat.
Brian R. Crowe directs, condensing Shakespeare’s five acts to two and keeping the running time to a brisk 90 minutes. His choreographed openings to both acts — he has the actors parade around the stage, in character — add a elegant touch. There’s some lowbrow humor here, too, though, including fart jokes, fat jokes and mild sexual innuendo.
“The Comedy of Errors” is the ultimate mistaken-identity comedy, with two pairs of identical and identically named twins — Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse (both played by Jeffrey Marc Alkins) and their servants Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse (both played by Billie Wyatt) — unaware that they are in the same city.
This leads to infinite complications, as Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife Adriana (Ellie Gossage), her sister Luciana (Katja Yacker), a goldsmith (Rupert Spraul) who has sold an expensive necklace to Antipholus of Ephesus, a courtesan (Marcella Cox) and others keep on interacting with one of the twins without knowing they’re actually dealing with the other.
Alkins does a good job making his two characters distinct. Antipholus of Syracuse is mostly befuddled and amused by the chaos and goes along with it (while falling in love with Luciana, who thinks that her brother-in-law is making a pass at her). Antipholus of Ephesus is enraged as misunderstandings lead to him being locked out of his own house, and arrested.
The biggest standout, though, is Wyatt as the two Dromios. She gives them (and particularly Dromio of Ephesus) a charmingly impish quality, completely in the spirit of Shakespeare’s good-natured comedy. She reminded me a bit of Charlie Chaplin, moving around the stage in a quirky, almost clownish way and making the Dromios long-suffering but resilient, ever-hopeful everymen, hanging in there until the inevitable happy ending.
As is usual for this venue, a strategy is planned out in advance for short, necessary pauses when loud planes fly overhead. One actor yells “plane” and they all break into a group dance until the plane is gone.
It happened three times on the night I attended, and the actors handled what could have been awkward moments as deftly as they delivered their lines, starting and stopping the dances in unison, staying in character (Gossage’s Adriana, for instance, seemed annoyed at the delays, just as this impatient woman would) and then smoothly picking up the play’s action right where they left off. One more example of STNJ handling a potential obstacle with impressive grace.
Remaining productions of “The Comedy of Errors” take place July 22, 24, 28 and 30 at 8 p.m., July 24 and 31 at 11 a.m., and July 25 and Aug. 1 at 5 p.m.; visit shakespearenj.org.
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