Shakespeare’s lightest play

Lantern Theater Company presents Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors

4 minute read
Johnson, in blue jacket with applique roses, spreads his arms while a bespectacled Hernandez grabs him from behind, screaming
Dave Johnson (left) and J Hernandez in the Lantern’s ‘Comedy of Errors.’ (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

There’s a certain comedic style of regional theater Shakespeare, as in Lantern Theatre Company’s new production of The Comedy of Errors, that you’ve probably seen before. It has a lighter touch, playing faster and looser with the text, the ensemble less a cast of characters and more a troupe of actors come to perform. The fourth wall falls; anachronisms abound. Pop songs and slide whistles announce themselves with glee. Bulkier swaths of iambic verse are dutifully intoned with a knowing wink as if to say, “Hey, it’s Shakespeare, what are you gonna do?”

This semi-satirical take on the Bard is such well-trodden ground as to have become its own distinct subgenre, one which variably injects a reliable dose of modern humor into the proceedings and talks over the play it is attempting to stage. Still, if there’s anything well-suited for the airiness of this mode, it’s The Comedy of Errors, undoubtedly Shakespeare’s airiest of plays. Directed here by Charles McMahon, the plot follows two twin brothers (and their two twin manservants) who were separated at birth and, unbeknownst to each other, now find themselves in the same city. Identities are mistaken, and hijinks ensue, lightly rendered with mile-a-minute pacing that, even if it occasionally runs out of steam, mostly adds up to a buoyant screwball treat.

Double sympathies

None of it would work, of course, without the full-bodied commitment of the cast. The four twins provide the play with a robust comedic center, escalating their perpetual bafflement until all appear practically red in the face. Antipholus of Syracuse (Dave Johnson), with the dazed countenance of a dreamer, finds himself welcomed by a family he’s quite literally never known, while Antipholus of Ephesus (Matteo Scammell), his swagger quickly eroding, is thrown out of doors, his double come to take his place.

Yet it is the servants, Dromio of Syracuse (J Hernandez) and Dromio of Ephesus (Zach Valdez), who are the true anchors of this production. It may be that they suffer at the whims of both the playwright and their masters, and so garner our sympathies doubly, but it doesn’t hurt that Hernandez and Valdez balance their sharp witticisms with loose Chaplinesque physicality that is a joy to behold. When both take the stage, in a final reunion, they offer the production its most oddly touching scene. It must also be noted that, unlike the actors playing the Antipholuses (Antipholi?), whom you could never imagine mistaking for each other, the Dromio twins bear a striking similarity.

Adriana (Kishia Nixon), Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife, and her sister Luciana (Campbell O’Hare) offer fine counterbalances to the twins’ bewilderment, while still finding lovely moments of sisterly bickering and frustrated romance for themselves. O’Hare, in particular, shines in a backyard encounter with Antipholus of Syracuse, tearing herself between the delicately swooning poise of love at first sight and the frenzied akimbo sprawl of what that forbidden romance implies. Brian McCann and Lee Minora round out the cast’s supporting roles, ably cycling through character types that range from “forlorn father doomed to execution” to “weird little mobster guy.”

It's not sublime, and that’s ok

All the while, the show briskly runs through a farcical comic plot that makes The Parent Trap look like realist drama, so much so that you might not notice precisely when it starts to run out of steam. Its zany non-sequitur tenor, often channeled in short bursts of lighting (designed by Shon Causer) and sound (designed by Christopher Colucci), offers the play some of its best laughs; it also, by the end, compounds to an atmosphere that is more labored than light, stuffed with a few too many bits that don’t all quite hit their marks. For a show so eager to appeal to a modern sensibility, it also seems oddly allergic to cultural references dated after the mid-aughts, a seeming time capsule of a Shakespeare comedy circa 2009. (The latest allusions I caught were to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Kanye West’s “I'ma-let-you-finish” interruption of Taylor Swift.)

Still, much of this bumpiness and eventual exhaustion is to be expected from this, Shakespeare’s lightest play. If it falls short of the sublimity of his finest comedies, that’s only because the script was never aimed at those heights in the first place. What we have instead is a perfectly delightful romp through the literally age-old question of, “What if there were two guys who looked the same?” You can almost feel Shakespeare grinning wryly from the grave, reminding us that just because it isn’t smart doesn’t mean it can’t be funny.

What, When, Where

The Comedy of Errors. By William Shakespeare, directed by Charles McMahon. $28-$45. Through June 16, 2024, at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia. (215) 829-0395 or


St. Stephen’s Theater is accessible only by stairs.

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