Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" has to be meticulously performed at breakneck speed to really work.
With its outrageous premise — two sets of twins, separated as children, now in the same town and constantly mistaken for one another — there must be constant motion, rapid pratfalls and unending confusion onstage.
That's probably how the Roman playwright Plautus staged his original comedy about twins and mistaken identity around 200 B.C. It's probably how Shakespeare staged his take on the plot sometime around 1594. And that is what director Kent Gash has done this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
This production, which opened Sunday in the Thomas Theatre, sets the play in the vibrant Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
The merchant, Egeon, is from New Orleans. On a voyage home from Boston with his family, a shipwreck separates Egeon from his wife, one of his twin sons and a twin servant. Years have passed, and the son rescued with Egeon, now a young man, has gone off with his servant to seek the missing twin brother and twin servant. Their search brings the twins to Harlem where, of course, the two sets of brothers and servants are constantly mistaken for each other. Inexplicably, both brothers are named Antipholus and both servants are named Dromio.
Egeon, meanwhile, following the son and servant who left New Orleans, has also landed in Harlem, where he's been unfairly arrested and faces imminent execution.
Got all that?
Director Gash certainly knows the sights and sounds of Harlem of the 1920s and '30s. He directed and is the co-author with Walter Marks of the successful off-Broadway production "Langston in Harlem," which set Langston Hughes' poetry to music.
Gash's vision of Harlem comes to life in the OSF's Thomas Theatre — on the stage, on the walls, even on the ceiling — with colorful scenic design by Jo Winiarski, vibrant costumes by Kara Harmon, video projections by Shawn Duan, jazzy score by composer Justin Ellington and crisply elegant choreography by Byron Easley.
Shakespeare's language remains, of course, but here it is liberally flavored with a Southern accent for the New Orleans twins and a hipster cadence for the citizens of Harlem.
Gash has assembled an outstanding cast. Tobie Windham plays both the New Orleans and Harlem Antipholus and Rodney Gardiner is both Dromios — until the confrontation at the end of the play. They outrageously mug their way through the rapid-fire misunderstandings. When Gardiner is on, it's hard to take your eyes off him. He's all over the stage — he probably would be bouncing off those video-projected walls and ceiling if he could.
The female characters here also pretty much steal the show. I doubt if the Bard would recognize Omoze Idehenre's voluble, wronged wife, Adriana, Monique Robinson's subtle and sassy Luciana, or Bakesta King's flamboyant, busty Courtesan — not to mention Mildred Ruiz-Sapp's flamboyant voodoo queen, Dr. Pinch, or Franchelle Stewart Dorn as a take-no-nonsense, gospel-singing abbess.
Jerome Preston Bates does a fine job as the hapless Egeon. Ramiz Monsef and Steven Sapp do equally well as put-upon merchants. R.J. Foster is regal as the Duke.
This year, OSF's "The Comedy of Errors" is part of the Shakespeare for a New Generation program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, featuring educational activities along with performances. If you wish to introduce Shakespeare to a whole new generation, there is no better way to do it than with this riotous, joyous, madcap celebration. It continues through Nov. 2.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.