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The Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s Comedy of Errors

Dori Coblentz (Georgia Institute of Technology) 

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s Comedy of Errors exploited the chaotic timescape of this play for its comic potential. Aemilia’s summary of the play’s action, “Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail / Of you, my sons; and till this present hour / My heavy burden ne’er delivered” (5.1.402-404) seemed to organize Director Jaclyn Hofmann’s approach. Aemilia’s labor, dilated over three decades, aptly represents the play’s engagement with gendered experiences of time. The comedy famously treats time both as a commodifiable unit of measurement and as the theatrical skill of timing. Time becomes a character in an extended syphilis joke, clocks become characters and characters transform into clocks, all while the Dromios are called out continually for mistakes in timing, as the Antipholus twins perceive them as being either too early or too late. By emphasizing the scenes of temporal embodiment and with some creative stagecraft, Hofmann directed a competent, entertaining production that could be enjoyed upon several levels.

This production’s interest in temporality was signaled early during Aegeon’s narration of his distressing circumstances. An ominous and mournful drum cadence marked the beginning of Aegeon’s sentencing as he knelt before Solinus in a balcony at the middle of the stage. A large dropcloth hung beneath him occupied center stage. As Aegeon began to narrate, a larger-than-life silhouette of Aemilia appeared upon the sheet. Her gestures, such as frantically juggling two, then four infants, provided a comic gloss to Aegeon’s idealized narration of her pregnancy’s “pleasing punishment” and granted her more narrative agency than is typical (1.1.45). Her silent presence at the play’s beginning visually dramatized the travail she describes in her final lines.

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J.L. Reed as Dromio of Ephesus and
Matt Felten as Dromio of Syracuse. Photo by Jeff Watkins. Courtesy of The Atlanta Shakespeare Company.

Aemilia’s dumbshow also presaged the colliding temporal schemas of the day, as each Dromio and Antipholus operates upon a different schedule with differing expectations. Two sets of adults emerged from behind the shadow screen dressed as infants in white bonnets, toddling and babbling. The move pleated together the disparate times of infancy and adulthood for the Antipholus and Dromio twins, and it foreshadowed Aemilia’s thirty-three year labor, as both the shadow play and her final speech conflate adult with infant twins. I found it less comically effective than the performance of the rest of Aegeon’s narration, however. Much of the humor of the play rests upon the indignities visited upon the Antipholus twins, especially Antipholus of Ephesus. Reducing both sets of twins to babies at the beginning of the play undermined the dignity of the Antipholus twins in advance, which damaged their ability to play the “straight man” throughout. Being introduced to the twins as pre-linguistic infants also undermined the power that the Dromios seem to wield throughout the play – the irrepressible Dromios are more verbally in control than Adriana and the Antipholus twins.

Casting for this play leaned into the potential for humor in playing a comedy of mistaken identity with actors who look nothing alike. Each Antipholus and Dromio pair consisted of one black and one white actor. A verbal tic used by both Antipholus twins to exhale frustration (“hoo!”) was comically effective in uniting the disparate personalities and looks. The violence of the many servant beating scenes was underplayed by both Dromio and Antipholus pairs. Ears were pulled, nipples twisted, and feeble beatings administered through hats rather than in ways that would leave the “thousand marks” complained of by Dromio of Ephesus (J. L. Reed). Downplaying physical aggression made the Dromios less pitiable and made the friendship between each pair more plausible.

Antipholus of Syracuse (Enoch King) and Dromio of Syracuse (Matt Felten) played up the friendship between the pair, as both were alternately pleasantly surprised by the unexpected generosity of the Ephesians and horrified by their sexual expectations. In one particularly successful scene, Dromio jokes his master out of a bad mood. His syphilis joke about the “bald pate of Father Time” is condensed in this version, but enough of it is left to motivate Antipholus’s slowly dawning comprehension and semi-unwilling amusement (2.3.90). The comic synergy between these two throughout was friendlier and less frenetic than that between the Ephesian twins, which added balance to the play’s tone and pace. Steve Hudson as Aegeon was an effective foil for his sons’ humor and rage. He delivered his rhyming couplets with doleful garrulity that was comic and affecting at the same time. Alongside Hudson, Chris Hecke played Solinus as comically visible in his distress at Aegeon’s story, comforting and being comforted by the sobbing executioner.

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 Chris Hecke as Pinch, Andrew Houchins as Antipholus of Ephesus, Gina Rickicki as Jailer, J.L. Reed as Dromio of Ephesus, and India Tyree as Luciana. Photo by Jeff Watkins. Courtesy of The Atlanta Shakespeare Company. 

The humorous potential of time is treated at more length in the interaction between Adriana (Jennifer Lamourt) and Dromio of Ephesus than in Dromio of Syracuse’s Father Time joke. The Ephesian Dromio seems more dismayed than gleeful as he spins Adriana’s dead metaphors (i.e. “at hand”) into lively and expressive new ones. This choice underplayed Dromio’s linguistic control over his interactions with his mistress and the Antipholus twins, but added a sense of ironic bewilderment. His enactment of the “Quoth he” and “Quoth I” lines were among some of the play’s funniest moments, and his delivery was nicely played upon by both Adriana and Luciana (India Tyree). The sisters’ interactions were played well, with Luciana’s ever-smiling and slightly smug advice to Adriana receiving an affectionate, if annoyed rebuff. Luciana’s over-the-top meekness served her well in the scene in which Antipholus of Syracuse professes his love to her. Her gentleness of speech contrasted humorously with several punches to the face she delivered between lines.

Hofmann’s Comedy of Errors was a solid and entertaining production of a classic crowd-pleaser, with some creative theatricality that chimed well with the play’s themes around time and identity. The Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s season continues over the summer with Richard the Third (June 17-July 2), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (July 8-July 30), and The Taming of the Shrew (August 26-September 17).

 

 

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