Who am I? A serious question at the very heart of the human condition, and yet that upstart crow William Shakespeare – when he wasn't yet old enough to have truly answered the question for himself – managed to milk it for a lot of laughs in one of his first plays, The Comedy of Errors. Dusting off a premise from a farce that was likely considered over-the-top when it first showed up in ancient Rome, he took two sets of identical twins who were separated at birth and grew up far from one another, dropped one set in the hometown of the other without either one knowing it, and let this twin be mistaken for that twin and that one for this one by family, friends, and business associates with escalating levels of bewilderment and frustration. Since we audience members watch it from the vantage point of gods, seeing all, the confusion is to us a wellspring of hilarity. But to the characters, whose viewpoints are limited, it's a flood of troubling doubt about their identities: If others keep telling me I'm someone other than the person I think myself to be, then who am I? Unmoored from their sense of self, they're adrift, lost.
In Austin Shakespeare's new staging of The Comedy of Errors, directed by Robert Ramirez, it isn't just the characters that seem unsure of who they are. The actors who play them give the impression of also being a bit lost where their identities are concerned. They handle the text well enough – what they say is rarely unclear – but they don't always imbue the words with meaning, with the feeling that the words are connected to their own emotions or to the people they address. Bonds of blood, of familiarity, of community are faint in the early going, which makes it hard for us to see what the characters really feel about one another and what's at stake for them before the chaos begins. And with the character relationships so tenuous, humor in the play's initial scenes – which boast a wealth of comedy gold – goes largely unmined.
Fortunately, the play's mounting confusion about who's who awakens the production's sense of what's what. It begins with one of the play's funniest set-pieces, wherein the servant Dromio of Syracuse relates to his master Antipholus how a kitchen wench in the house where they just dined claimed he was her spouse. His report of her immense girth and greasiness, described in terms of countries around the globe, amounts to an Elizabethan vaudeville routine, and with each punch line, you can see Madison Weinhoffer as Dromio warming to the comedy – but not only through the wordplay; she also starts to convey how much her character enjoys this kind of banter with his master. It's a bond that strengthens between Weinhoffer's Dromio and Tony Salinas' Antipholus as the pair encounter more "witchcraft" and grow increasingly desperate to escape Ephesus.
From there, exasperation works wonders throughout the cast. Toby Minor – exhibiting the most natural feel for text, character, and physical comedy – puts his Antipholus of Ephesus on a hair-trigger of vexation, each mix-up and its indignity setting him off again, his rage rising until it seems steam's shooting out of his ears. His fury activates the puzzlement in Hannah Rose Barfoot's Dromio of Ephesus, making him an effective comic foil. And the arrivals of Jesus Valles' bug-eyed exorcist Dr. Pinch and Alison Stebbins' brooks-no-bull Abbess, both deeply invested in the action and the characters, goose the comedy to more satisfying levels. Props also to Austin Shakespeare MVP Marc Pouhé as dad to the Antipholi, his booming voice brimming over with paternal care and affection.
At one point in the fifth act, when all the characters have assembled onstage and the truth of the twin twins is made clear, a further revelation prompts the entire cast to cut loose with a loud, thunderstruck "Whaaa –?!" Its timing, its broadness, and its delivery in unison make it pure, unapologetic schtick, which is so much of what this show needs and is. The Comedy of Errors is a big, boisterous, over-the-top farce, and in that moment, this Austin Shakespeare take finally understands who it is.
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