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Theatre in Review: The Comedy of Errors (Public Theater Mobile Unit)

Sara Ornelas. Photo: Peter Cooper

This unique company, a good deed in a naughty world, hits a new high with its musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's knockabout farce. The Mobile Unit travels the five boroughs, presenting tab versions of the Bard's canon to prisons, libraries, homeless shelters, and community centers. (All performances are free.) These scrappy, bare-bones productions, featuring mostly young actors with classical theatre chops, are reliably enjoyable, especially for their welcoming embrace of the audience. They also preserve the essential seed on which the Public was gestated, namely founder Joe Papp's desire to bring Shakespeare to the broadest possible audience.

The company has taken an especially free hand with The Comedy of Errors, reimagining it as a bilingual musical with plenty of Latin style. It's a savvy move; if this is one of Shakespeare's less-quotable scripts, it is a solid piece of comic construction, having previously yielded the Rodgers and Hart evergreen The Boys from Syracuse. In this adaptation by Rebecca Martínez and Julián Mesri, a troubadour (the charming and witty Sara Ornelas) guides us through the thicket of escalating misunderstandings that drives the plot. (You will recall that everything turns on identical pairs masters and servants from distant cities, who are constantly being mistaken for their counterparts.) Ornelas is especially amusing when explaining, with a deadpan shrug, how a single family produced two sets of twins named Antipholus and Dromio. It's not my plot, she seems to say; just go with it, okay? The songs -- music by Mesri, lyrics by him and Martínez -- mesh well with the verse, accelerating the plot and keeping the mood buoyant.

Martínez, who also directs and choreographs, keeps things moving at a fast clip, making sure the actors play the farce for real, thereby upping the laughter quotient. She is especially inventive in the scenes featuring Joel Perez and Gían Peréz, double-cast as Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse and Ephesus, each identified by the color of his hat. When forced to confront their doppelgangers, some fast-and-furious swapping of headgear takes place. Danaya Esperanza brings a touch of amusing diva attitude to the Ephesian matron Adriana, who is baffled by the seemingly schizophrenic behavior of her Antipholus. (Esperanza has played Viola in Twelfth Night for the Mobile Unit, but, based on her performance here, I bet she'd make a cracking Olivia, too.) Adding to the fun are Varín Ayala as the goldsmith caught up in the confusion; Karen Lugo as Adriana's sister Luciana, who wonders why her brother-in-law is suddenly coming onto her; and Desireé Rodriguez, working both sides of the street as a saucy courtesan and a holy abbess with a secret.

The production is built for speed, not necessarily style, which is just fine in this instance. Emmie Finckel's set design provides a basic ground plan for the characters' comings and goings, but Lux Haac's costumes make use of a lively green-purple-gold palette, with the added touch of some lovely embroidery. Charles Coes' sound design keeps the action intelligible throughout.

Mobile Unit productions typically terminate in an engagement at the Public; this year, members of the press were invited to see the tour in situ. I caught a late-afternoon performance at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center on West 13th Street. It was a full house, with audience members ranging from adolescents to retirees, all of whom appeared to have a roaring good time. It made vividly clear, if it were not already obvious, what a gift this program is to the city of New York. This isn't broccoli culture, good for you but fatally dull and lacking in zest; it's classical theatre made urgent and contemporary, a celebration of communal enjoyment. The production runs at the Public Mary 25 through June 11, if you're interested in taking part in some festivity. --David Barbour

(11 May 2023)

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