The Comedy of Errors, despite its romantic moments and eventual happy ending, is a play about mistakes. There are mistaken identities, errors in judgment, failed attempts at problem solving and even some medical malpractice — if it can wrong, it does so wildly in the Greek city of Ephesus. And the more things go pear-shaped, the funnier the play becomes.
It's important to fix that in your mind as you watch St. Louis Shakespeare's current production of the comedy, which opens with Egeon (Dan McGee) telling his sad tale of shipwreck and the loss of his wife and one of his two infant sons in the furious sea. As McGee shares the woeful story with the Duke (Erick Lindsey), the two treat it as if it's a matter of life and death — because it is. Egeon's search has taken him to Ephesus, where his identity as a Syracusan means an automatic death sentence (Greek politics has always been serious business).
This grim start feels out of place if you're familiar with the nonsense that follows, but director Shaun Sheley is making a point. The loss of a spouse, missing children and government-sanctioned geo-cleansing are all tragedies. Calling some guy by the wrong name, that's just a funny thing that happens to everybody. It's important to have some perspective, or else comedy and tragedy become as indistinguishable as Egeon's twin sons Antipholus of Syracuse (Shane Signorino) and Antipholus of Ephesus (Chuck Winning).
Once we get into the heart of the play, the actual comedy, we meet Adriana (Frankie Ferrari), who is unable to tell the difference between the two lads, and so she compounds all of her mistakes. Mistaking Antipholus/S for her husband Antipholus/E, she engages the former in a courteous duel of flouncy bows that becomes more elaborate as she grows more frustrated with his failure to recognize her. Imploring Antipholus/S to join her for dinner, Adriana grasps his hands with such fervor that she drives him to his knees with pain.
Violence is Adriana's answer to every perceived slight; at one point she shadowboxes her way across the stage as she lists her husband's flaws to her sensitive and sensible sister, Luciana (Jamie McKittrick). Those flaws are all imagined; she's actually speaking about Antipholus/S, who has told her repeatedly that he is not her husband. (And, in fact, he develops feelings for Luciana during their fateful dinner.)
Signorino is a very physical Antipholus/S, hoisting his servant Dromio of Syracuse (Zac McMillan) bodily to move him out of the way and frequently throwing and catching people as they fly across the stage. He's also straightforward in speech and manner, whereas Antipholus/E is more genteel and urbane. If Adriana could look beyond the brothers' physical similarity, she'd know her husband in an instant.
Antipholus/E shares some of her flaws, being just as quick to anger and perhaps even swifter to resort to violence; he sends his servant Dromio (Michael Pierce) to get a rope so he can beat his wife with it after she locks him out of his own house. When Adriana tags in "doctor" Pinch (Ben Ritchie, disguised as a deranged mountain man with Jerry Falwell's voice) to figure out what's wrong with her husband, Antipholus/E turns the consultation into a kabuki- theater-meets-WWE-heavyweight bout. Ephesians love some violence.
You get the feeling watching the Antipholi that both of the Dromios are smarter than their masters, but not by much. McMillan's Dromio/S works magic with a sustained geography-based series of jibes about Nell, a never-seen kitchen wench who believes him to be her lover. Dromio/E is just as facile with words, but knows when to say nothing at all. When his newfound brother questions Dromio/E about Nell's possibly hidden charms, Pierce merely smiles slyly and throws an arm around his fellow servant's shoulders with casual disdain; you never know what floats your brother's boat.
There is a sense that the chases, the brawling and the Ephesian fury would continue until one of the four boys lost an eye, but Mom arrives to break it up with moments to spare. The boys from Syracuse hide in a priory, where the Abbess (Margeau Steinau) protects them from further harassment. The revelation that she is Egeon's missing wife, and that the entire family is here in Ephesus, solves all matters of identity, saves Egeon from the axe and returns the players to mellow equilibrium. Only the brothers Dromio enjoy a last laugh, dancing each other through a too-narrow doorway as they go to join a family dinner. Let's hope that meal has placecards, or Adriana is gonna cut somebody.