Comedy of Errors — more error than comedy

Casual William Shakespeare readers (and even some more hardcore ones), don’t pay as much attention to his comedies. Like the tragedies, these are equally compassionate and energetic, but with a different focus: farcical hilarity and whirlwind of confusion. Such is the blueprint for an early comedy of his, The Comedy of Errors, now running at the O’Reilly Theater downtown as part of the Pittsburgh Public Theater series.

Try this plot on for size: A father, Egeon, has two sets of twin sons. Each set has the same name (Alphonsus of Syracuse and Alphonsus of Ephesus, Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus), adding to the confusion. Then, through a set of fantastical events, the two pairs get separated at birth. But it’s no ordinary separation: Dromio of Syracuse becomes the servant for Alphonsus of Syracuse, and Dromio of Ephesus ends up being the servant for Alphonsus of Ephesus.

Things get interesting when the Syracusians find themselves in Ephesus, fully intertwined with the lives of their twin counterparts that live there. As the audience, we know who is who, but the characters on stage don’t. The situation quickly becomes uncomfortable for the audience, especially when the misunderstandings end up causing marital troubles, jewelry theft, and beatings. Sure, Shakespeare moved us with star-crossed lovers and being/not being, but in The Comedy of Errors he showcases both the hilarity and discomfort of mix-ups.

This particular production, however, was quirky. Director Ted Pappas reworked the performance to fit a modern-day urban setting, intending to add to the madness of the scenario. But Pappas’ world was tough to get into: He tried bringing in characters of all races to introduce the big-cities-are-diverse theme, but wound up introducing cookie-cutter stereotypes of each background. One of the Dromios was so exaggeratedly gay that it was bordering on offensive. Equally off was the only black member of the cast, who, for some reason, was supposed to resemble Al Sharpton in appearance and disposition. And then there’s the Jewish guy who played a jewelry dealer. And the Chinese guy who had curly mustache and bowed when he talked.

It seems unbelievable Pappas expected so little of his audience. Perhaps the majority of the crowd — people either over 50 or under 10 — found such stereotypes amusing, but for those of us stuck in the middle, the performance felt both awkward and wrong.