A dose of slapstick with a hearty draught of broad humor, combined with a stellar young cast in retro costumes, make for a very entertaining theater experience, in Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” running through August 14, at the outdoor Amphitheater on State Road, Vineyard Haven.
Considering Shakespeare’s affection for the theatrical device of mistaken identity, many of his plays could easily be subtitled “a comedy of errors.” What sets “The Comedy of Errors” apart from his other comedies is that the gimmick is the whole of the plot, and the play lacks the subplots that sometimes render Shakespeare particularly difficult to follow. Without in any way lessening the effectiveness of the play, the small cast and lack of multiple twists and turns make it easier to focus on the language — including the wit and especially outrageous humor of this very funny show.
The comedy is also one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays. Director Chelsea McCarthy says, “The great thing about his show is, it’s very short and it’s very fast. Things are moving so rapidly. For kids who have outgrown [children's theater] the Fabulists, this is the next step up. There’s the same amount of silliness and activity.”
A first time director, Ms. McCarthy has proven herself a skilled comedienne and a master of physical comedy over the course of her many performances at the Amphitheater, as well as on the Vineyard Playhouse main stage, and in Island Workshop Theater productions. Ms. McCarthy and Nicole Galland have also presented their own abridged and enhanced versions of Shakespeare’s plays for the past three years in a series called Shakespeare for the Masses. That popular series is on a mission to help make Shakespeare as accessible and entertaining as possible. Ms. McCarthy has brought to the current production a talent for amping up the action and allowing pantomime to aid in the comprehension and appreciation of the material.
The premise of “The Comedy of Errors” is made plain right at the beginning with a long expository speech laying out the background. Bill Cookson does a wonderful job delivering this lengthy narrative. His booming melodious voice and the naturalness of his manner make it easy to follow, and help inoculate the audience in the flowery Old English of Shakespeare.
The rest of the cast is made up of young, energetic actors — some regulars to the amphitheater productions and some talent new to Island audiences. The plot centers on not one, but two sets of identical twins — two teams of masters and servants who not only look alike but share the same names. The double dose of confusion allows for humorous mixups not only among friends and family, but between the protagonists themselves.
As the two servants, Jacob Tischler and Dylan Schwarz-Wallach are talented clowns who get the biggest laughs of the show. The dual Antipholuses (or Antipholi as Ms. McCarthy refers to them) are skillfully played by Adam Petkus and Ben Mankoff. Liz Michael Hartford delivers a solid performance as the wife of one of the Antipholi, and Kathryn David shares in one of the play’s funniest moments, in a brilliantly choreographed, failed-seduction scene, in which she acrobatically fends off the advances of her brother-in-law’s lookalike. Ms. David manages skillfully as a woman torn between attraction and moral indignation. May V. Oskan stands out as a Mae West-style courtesan, whose exaggerated sultriness and well executed pratfalls attest to her professional clown training.
There are many other fun, slapstick scenes including a very funny fight through a door, delivered with a lot of physical comedy and some classic Shakespearean insults. Eventually an all-out brawl ensues, for which trained fight choreographer, John Robichau, helped with the staging. This hysterical scene is the culmination of a show that spotlights slapstick without figuratively knocking you over the head with too many fake blows.
“What’s great is that there are so many talented physical comedians in the show. Anytime we could put in a fall or a fight or something funny, we said ‘Let’s do it,'” Ms. McCarthy said.
Colorful hand-painted signs by Mac Young help define the set. They are clever and eye-catching. The costuming brings an interesting Mad Men feel to the show. Ms. McCarthy confesses a love for the Sixties, and her eye for detail — she is also a veteran costume designer — reveals itself in the era’s little hats and feminine brooches included with the tailored clothing. In place of swords, she has her characters battle with closed umbrellas, in keeping with her wardrobe choice.
Although it’s a one-trick pony, that one gag in “The Comedy of Errors” is played to full advantage. For the past week, the picturesque Ampitheater setting has been filled with the laughter of adults and kids. The show is a perfect summer family entertainment.
“The Comedy of Errors” Wed.–Sat., 5 pm, Tisbury Amphitheater. By William Shakespeare, directed by Chelsea McCarthy. Through Aug. 13. $15; $10 children 18 and under. Vineyardplayhouse.org; 508-696-6300.