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A Romantic Comedy

One of my minor hobby horses is defending some of Shakespeare’s earlier plays that are frequently given short critical shrift, particularly two early comedies. Strip away your expectations about The Taming of the Shrew and you will find a genuine love story, about two dark and damaged characters unexpectedly finding each other, and love, in what appears to be a most unlikely match with one another. And step back from the familiar but still workable farce of A Comedy of Errors, and you will find a play structured very much like the late romances, and striking many of the same deep chords.

A Comedy of Errors begins, after all, with a death sentence on Aegeon, merchant of Syracuse, who has come to Ephesus in search of his lost son. Well, one of his lost sons – as he explains, he lost one of his twin boys, along with his wife, in a shipwreck when his son was still a small child; and the boy he was able to keep set off several years ago, when he was grown, in search of his twin, never to return. And so the father ventured forth himself, and, having fetched up in enemy territory, he now faces a very sad end to a life of struggle and loss.

This is close kin to the plot of Pericles, and the resolution, not only saving Egeon’s life but bringing the twins back into contact with one another and with their father, and bringing Egeon’s long-lost wife back as well, again foreshadows the recognition scenes that end that first of Shakespeare’s late romances.

That similarity is surely not an accident. Shakespeare’s late turn to romance is actually a return to a genre that was popular in his youth. So it makes sense that one of his earliest comedies would be framed in this way. But whatever the reason for that framing, the impact of taking that framing seriously, of remembering it when thinking about the farce that takes up most of the play, is to deepen the play, and the pathos of its comedy, considerably, by providing a vital backstory for its central characters, the two Antipholuses.

Antipholus of Ephesus Syracuse foregrounds his own backstory for us: he is a drop of water in the ocean searching for another drop. His quest is an existential one. Where this becomes important in the story is in the love plot – he falls, hard and fast, for Luciana, sister of his brother’s wife, Adriana, while Luciana thinks he’s Adriana’s husband, and is scandalized. The situation can be played purely as farce, which it is, but the pathos under the surface springs from Antipholus of Ephesus’s painful sense of his own incompleteness. Of course he falls into an alarmingly strong passion at first sight of Luciana. He has spent his whole life looking for his other half, for somebody who could make him whole.

His brother, Antipholus of Syracuse Ephesus [UPDATE: thanks to commenter William Dalton for catching these embarrassing if thematically appropriate errors], does not similarly go in for self-disclosure in this way, nor is he particularly tender of the feelings of others. He’s a rougher fellow altogether than his brother, who sees the world, or so he thinks, for what it is, and deals with it on the world’s terms. If his wife is shrewd, he’ll avoid her; if she locks him out, he’ll take his pleasure elsewhere. But late in the play, we get his crucial bit of backstory: while Antipholus of Ephesus Syracuse was raised by his father, and so knew loss both directly and in his father’s widower’s eyes, Egeon’s wife, Amelia, was unable to hold on to her son. Corinthian fishermen forcibly parted mother and son, and she never found him again until the end of the play. So Antipholus of Ephesus rose in the world as an orphan – and knew nothing of how he lost what he lost, nor indeed could afford to dwell in sadness; he needed to grow hard, to survive, and win the patronage of the Duke by whom he rose to whatever prominence he has achieved (including his rich but difficult wife).

My point is simply this. If you ignore the frame story, then you have a funny but negligible farce about two sets of identical twins. But if you remember it – and if the director, and the actor(s) who play the Antipholuses remember it as they play out the farce – then you have a story about real people, with real and plausible psychologies, that is also a kind of anthology of the consequences of the enduring consequences of early loss of a parent or child – and which cures these deep hurts by a miraculous reconciliation out of romance. You have something beautiful and moving, that quite plausibly foreshadows titanic late achievements like The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale.

I am very pleased to report than Daniel Sullivan, in his staging of A Comedy of Errors in Central Park, and Hamish Linklater, who plays both the Antipholuses in that production, remembered that frame, and that backstory, very well. (Better, in fact, than I did – much of the above discussion of the psychology of the two Antipholuses I have to credit to this production for bringing into focus for me.) The the results are powerfully moving – and even funnier than usual as a consequence.

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Sullivan has set his play in a Runyonesque 1940s upstate New York; the first visual joke is a bus depot with signs for departures for Syracuse, Ithaca, etc. – all the upstate New York towns that might also be in the eastern Mediterranean. The town appears to be run by a mob boss known as the Duke (a ripe Skip Sudduth), who’s ordered the execution of poor Egeon (an affecting Jonathan Hadary, who also doubles as a thoroughly lunatic Doctor Pinch) and proceeds openly to carry out the sentence without concern about the reaction of the authorities until he is moved by Egeon’s tale of woe. It’s an inspired choice of setting – not a real, historical period, but a fictionalization of one with which any moderately aware audience will be familiar. It is a world with just enough reality for us to believe the people in it matter – but not a whit more; and moreover, it’s a world in which stylized language and action seem more natural than naturalism. That’s just the way Shakespeare built his worlds; indeed, it’s what connects the Elizabethan theater to classic musical comedies like Guys and Dolls.

So I am happily running with the production pretty much from the beginning. And then Hamish Linklater walks on, and the whole show moves to a new level. Linklater delivers that key line, “I to the world am like a drop of water/ That in the ocean seeks another drop” with complete conviction, as he does every other line in the play – there’s not a moment in which he mugs, or seems to be behaving in anything but the utmost earnest. Which is what makes his takes so achingly funny.

It goes without saying that he does a masterful job of very clearly distinguishing between the two Antipholuses, but what’s impressive is the way in which he creates for each of them not only a characterization with mannerisms of speech and body habitus and such – but a fully-rounded character. When he professes his love to Luciana, it’s not a stock moment – Heidi Schreck actually has something to play off of, and her own characterization takes a huge leap in terms of depth. Troubles of the marriage bed? Not exactly – it’s just that nobody ever went for her like they did for her more glamorous sister, Adriana (a delightful Emily Bergl, playing Antipholus of Syracuse Ephesus’s wife as a kind of half-socialite, half-moll that could exist only in a ’40s screwball). Now that somebody has, well, yes, she’s scandalized. But she’s also delighted – because she can feel the sincerity of his appeal.

Similarly, his Antipholus of Syracuse Ephesus for the first time, for me, made sense of that character’s roughness, gave it an underlying pathos. From his first complaint about his shrewish wife, we get a picture not of a boorish chauvinist who probably deserves his day of farcical torments, but of a man who tried to live up to a certain aspirational role, and who has learned, ruefully, that when he married this woman, he didn’t win a prize – he started playing a whole new game. He hasn’t figured out how to win that game yet, but he’s still playing, for better or worse. But the real pathos comes out in his complaint to the Duke. Because there is a real pleading in Linklater’s voice when he demands justice of the Duke – a pleading tone that clicks when we learn that he was basically raised by this gangster.

The two Dromios don’t have a similar complexity, and their quite different characters seem to have more to do with their experiences of very different masters. But Jesse Tyler Ferguson does a fantastic job filling out both sketches. In particular, his comfort, as Dromio of Syracuse, with his master, the near approach to camaraderie in spite of the yawning gap in station has never been sweeter. The bi-play about the kitchen wench as the globe always brings the house down, but it doesn’t always play as welcome relief to the characters from the stress of their bizarre situation, and hence have a clear dramatic function. Here it does.

I didn’t love everything about the production. Sullivan has Egeon tell his tale of woe  using a magic suitcase from which he can produce an entire mast of a ship; that’s the kind of laugh that undermines the reality of the world that is still being created in the audience’s mind, and I thought it distracted from an important scene. And some of the cuts, strangely, actually slowed the pace of the play’s early scenes. Finally, I understand why Sullivan wanted to avoid having the doubles who step in as the Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio for the last scene be silent – because there is no way they would sound like Linklater and Ferguson, and this would spoil the illusion. But the illusion is spoilt anyway because they don’t act anything like Linklater and Ferguson – not least because they remain silent (and on their knees) the entire time. The characterization has been so sharp for so long, that this choice really jarred, for me.

But there was so much more that I loved, deeply, from small things like the way the set-piece ’40s dance numbers echoed the Elizabethan practice of incorporating dance into theater, to very big things like the depth of Linklater’s central performance. If you’re not familiar with the play, this is a wonderful introduction. If you are, I urge seeing it even more strongly; you may discover you are not as familiar with it as you thought.

A Comedy Of Errors plays at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through June 30th.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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