"The Comedy of Errors," which some say is Shakespeare's first play, is a remarkably complete work: short, with the story taking place over the course of a single day; action galore; characters aplenty; and nicely crafted.
The play, borrowed from the work of the Roman comic dramatist Plautus, the Neil Simon of his day, does not seem to have come from the pen of a fledgling playwright.
Yet like a handful of other Shakespeare plays, "The Comedy of Errors" usually needs some help when presented to modern audiences. Shakespeare in Delaware Park director Steve Vaughn knew this going into the second and last production of the summer season; it's a "silly play about silly people," he said.
So the temptation might be to alter space and time, transfer the tale to some exotic clime, go bonkers with costumes and music. The precedent is there: Shakespeare in Delaware Park has taken great license with the Bard of Avon; a community college mounted a smoky "Midsummer Night's Dream" with leather and motorcycles; the Stratford Festival produced a multigender "Troilius and Cressida" and a kinky "Measure for Measure"; and Artpark once imported a heavily militarized "Hamlet." In New York City perhaps a decade ago, a twisted production of "King Lear" had the crazed monarch undergo a sex change.
Shakespeare scholar Ivor Brown has written that "the crime is not in making the experiment, but the botching of it." With his tweaking of "The Comedy of Errors," with his making a silly play sillier, Vaughn has not botched it.
The plot: In long-ago Greece, two sets of identical twins -- masters and servants -- and their parents are separated by shipwreck. One set and Dad grow up in Syracuse, the other and Mom in the seaport town of Ephesus.
The Syracusans get curious after a while about their lost family and begin a search, which of course leads to Ephesus, where their twins and mother live. To complicate matters, both sons are named Antipholus, both servants Dromio. Picture the havoc among wives, girlfriends and merchants when all four are on the streets and are joined by the Syracusan dad, who has followed his sons.
Don't lose any sleep over this. It all gets resolved after much mixup. Antipholus from Syracuse, very early on, offers that he is to the world "like a drop of water, that in the ocean seeks another drop." The families are reunited just minutes before the final curtain, the sons still wary, the servants euphoric; it's clear that Shakespeare preferred his zanies.
Vaughn has done an admirable job here. He has added burlesque and vaudeville and a touch of the Three Stooges, kept period costumes and retained the play's delicious -- and bawdy -- wordplay, all the while holding on to the story's other threads: maintaining or regaining a sense of self and championing the bonds of friendship and loyalty.
There's a pleasant goofiness about it all, despite some puzzling moments of townsfolk comings and goings and a nearly unsingable song in Act 2's opening minutes that could have been deleted without loss.
The large cast has been gathered from many Buffalo acting companies: Richard Wesp and Thomas LaChiusa are the two Antipholuses, John Warren and Tim Newell the brothers Dromio.
Wesp and Warren are hilarious together, and they are responsible for most of the night's foolishness, Warren particularly. Gerry Maher is excellent as distraught father Aegeon, as is Lona Geiser as the mercurial and obviously confused wife, Aemilia. And there are fine moments from Philip Knoerzer, Kate LoConti and Lisa Vitrano.
The set -- gaudy and tacky -- and costumes by Ken Shaw are decked out in Crayola colors, and a special nod should go to sound designer Tom Makar and his assistants -- great work.
"The Comedy of Errors," four centuries old, needed a little help, and it came to the right place.
The Comedy of Errors
Rating: *** 1/2
Shakespeare's early comedy, directed by Steve Vaughn.
Nightly at 7:30, Tuesday through Sunday, Shakespeare in Delaware Park (Shakespeare Hill, off Lincoln Parkway), through Aug. 18.
Tickets: Free admission, donation taken.