Rarely will you see a stage as stark as the one arrayed for St. Louis Shakespeare's current production of The Comedy of Errors. Director Jef Awada and scenic designer George Spelvin limit themselves to a pair of mobile louvered doors, two sets of metal staircases on wheels and a fixed scaffold.
And yet once the play begins, the door and stairs become a ship broken by a tempest, the various taverns and homes of bustling Ephesus, and even a humble church as the cast spins the pieces into different configurations.
This economy of scenery matches the story, pared down to a brisk 70 minutes by Alec Wild. The dialogue has been heavily cut, and there are a host of missing characters: Egeon, Balthazar and other merchants, and the Duke of Ephesus himself are all excised. What remains is the essence of Shakespeare's comedy: two sets of twins, the jealous fury of a wife and the endless entanglements they whirl through as they try to find their proper places in the world.
Antipholus of Syracuse (Christopher LaBanca) and his servant Dromio of Syracuse (Ben Watts) arrive in Ephesus to do some trading. Unbeknownst to them, each has a long-lost twin of the same name already living in the city. Antipholus of Ephesus (LaBanca again) is a rich and beloved citizen, well attended by his servant, Dromio of Ephesus (would you believe Ben Watts, again?). When Adriana (Maggie Conroy) calls her husband to dinner via Dromio/E, he encounters the wrong Antipholus and sets off a series of cascading mistaken identity highjinks that result in beatings, curses and riotous duels fought atop those spinning staircases, with lightning costume changes between rounds. It's quite a treat for the eyes and ears, and an excellent Shakespeare for first-timers, children and diehards alike.
LaBanca does excellent work as the dual Antipholi. He builds a solid head of steam the angrier he gets, which results in strangled-chicken shrieks of exasperation when his Antipholus/E is accused of madness — not the best defense. Ben Watts is a pliant punching bag (you always know it's coming because utility man Andrew Kuhlman appears behind him with a pair of woodblocks to crack in time with the "slap") and a deft wordsmith, reeling off those melodious lines with casual ease. He can also bend backward deeper than anyone this side of Gumby.
Maggie Conroy brings a different rage to Adriana than most. Hers is a diva in the true sense: a demanding, egotistical creature of split-second rages who upbraids her husband with comic vehemence. Sure, she's terrifying when she's angry, but you can't help but love her — she's so good at it.
Now, about the grand finale. At the end of Comedy, the two Antiopholi and Dromios must stand together to realize they are two sets of twins; a problem when there are two actors playing the four roles. Awada's solution to this technical difficulty is brilliant in its simplicity and perfectly ridiculous, but it can't be revealed because you have to see it for yourself. You're gonna laugh.