Over the past year, I have seen The Comedy of Errors set in a Mexican border town, a Native American reservation, and a resort on the French Riviera. Daniel Sullivan’s new production in Central Park at least retains the city of Syracuse, even if it is not the one in Sicily but the one in upstate New York. No matter that this early Shakespearean farce is set in Ephesus, which has no correspondence in the Empire State; at least the Mafioso Duke and his gangster henchmen here have Sicilian roots.
A whiff of mob violence wafts through the outdoor amphitheatre at the outset of this heavily truncated, enjoyable 90-minute evening, a Shakespeare in the Park production by The Public Theater. We are roughly in the 1930s, with a trio of couples jitterbugging with post-Gatsby fervour before the Duke arrives to pronounce sentence on Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, who has come in search of his wife and one of his twin sons, who were separated from him 25 years earlier in a shipwreck. Touched by his tale, the Duke grants Egeon a day to raise the ransom necessary for a reprieve.
The amount, however, is not the thousand marks of Shakespeare, but a thousand dollars. Such textual substitutions are fairly minimal, and none of the updating discomfits like Joss Whedon’s new Much Ado movie, which begins by tossing the play’s moral premise: Benedick wakes up in bed with Beatrice.
The twin Antipholuses, attended by their twin servants the Dromios, are rather anodyne in this telling. Their appealing, game interpreters – Hamish Linklater as the former, Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the latter – carry out some of the requisite slapstick. They tickle the audience especially when, after Dromio is pursued by a well-padded kitchen wench, they perform the sure-fire “How fat is she?” routine.
The clowning does not cut very deep. But none of the recent attempts to intensify the play’s brutality have proved very resonant, so perhaps Sullivan and his designers were right to make few demands on Park patrons. John Lee Beatty provides a Main Street set, with a row of Hopper-ish tenements in the background, and Toni-Leslie James whips up luscious pastel costumes for the women.
I confess, though, to missing some of the discarded lines, especially from the Lady Abbess, with whom one set of twins seek sanctuary. Lusty young men, she observes sagely, “give their eyes the liberty of gazing”. Indeed.