Speaking of comedy of errors, what do you do when it's opening night and there's a flood in the theater? Wait, don't answer — it gets worse. Fortunately, about twenty minutes before curtain, the water is shut off, which stops the flooding. But now the restrooms are out of order. But the show must go on! And it does, preceded by a brief explanation and directions to the nearest restroom.
It's not until midway through the first act that we discover that a wet/dry vacuum being used backstage emits an immediately recognizable and annoying whine that is not only audible in the theater, but is almost strong enough to overpower Luciana's voice. But Laura Coppinger is a trouper, and she ups the ante to compete with the unseen machine — and not even the smallest flicker of annoyance shows on her face, nor on that of Mark Kelley, who is quite occupied playing the smitten Antipholus of Syracuse.
The vacuum intrudes several more times during the show, but St. Louis Shakespeare's production of The Comedy of Errors never pauses in its headlong flight. Louder, more raucous and more frenetic than faulty plumbing or acts of God, this Comedy is a dazzling testament to the power of dirty jokes, pell-mell chase scenes and slapstick physical comedy to overcome life's frequent obstacles — onstage or off.
The plot is a welter of mistaken identities: Twin brothers separated at birth, both named Antipholus, end up in the city of Ephesus. Both have servants named Dromio (also twins). Antipholus of Ephesus is married to Adriana, a vulpine woman with a quick temper and quicker tongue. Her sister, Luciana, is not quite so quick. Adriana frequently mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for her own husband, and he is consistently paired with the wrong Dromio, which leads to confusing two-sided conversations, half-baked escape schemes and wholly inappropriate seduction attempts.
Director Donna Northcott amplifies all of this confusion with constant motion. Characters run, leap, dodge and pratfall across the stage, both in the foreground and background. (Pay attention to everyone onstage and you'll be rewarded.) Mark Kelley plays Antipholus with a rubbery grace, bending and bouncing through scenes. When surprised (i.e., often), Kelley blurts out a nervous yelp that doubles as a starter's pistol for the rest of the cast. His Dromio, Cody Proctor, is sly and opportunistic: Notice him cop a quick feel on Adriana when she embraces the wrong Antipholus. Proctor has the best jokes — farts and fat women are specialties — and he delivers them with devastating timing.
Coppinger's Luciana is appropriately daffy and completely charming. When her brother-in-law Antipholus (not really) seduces her, she submits with coos and giggles, then shrieks and recoils, albeit reluctantly. As her much less bubbly sister Adriana, Carol Rose argues sharply against the bonds of marriage in response to Luciana's romanticized ramblings. Rose plays Adriana as a woman to be ignored at your peril, and her Antipholus knows it.
The second act is longer than the first but flies by in seemingly half the time. The pace is frantic, the characters more exasperated, the action constant. The payoff comes in the form of a kaleidoscopic chase involving the whole cast (Amanda Handle's jewel-like costumes enhance the effect), which is comically and violently ended by Adam Thenhaus' burly nurse in drag.
Come hell or high water, Shakespeare always ends well with a man in drag. And the show will be even better without the vacuum.