"THE COMEDY of Errors" is Shakespeare's knockabout farce, a laugh riot lacking in lyricism and depth but heavy on the hijinks, as two pairs of identical twins, all separated shortly after birth, are reunited on the same day in the same place. Cue scenes of mistaken identity, and zany complications ensue.
At least that's the view of the play long held by many scholars and theater critics. It's the Rodney Dangerfield of Shakespearean comedies: funny, but not especially respected. As a result, Shakespeare's shortest play has not been seen as a very sturdy vehicle for fine acting.
Some stagings, including the Shakespeare Theatre Company's 1993 production, have cast two actors instead of four to play Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse and their servants, both named Dromio. This certainly makes "The Comedy of Errors" a tour de force for the two players, who must make sure the audience always knows which twin is which. It's the characters who are supposed to be confused, not the theatergoers.
This time around, the company is going the traditional casting route, with four actors playing the roles. Gregory Wooddell and Paul Whitthorne are the Antipholus twins (the "Antipholi," as they call them), and Daniel Breaker and LeRoy McClain are the Dromios.
Surely Wooddell and Whitthorne must have spent many hours during rehearsals working out common physical and vocal traits for the brothers. Actors who double in the roles must work to make their characters distinct. So didn't these two actors have to work to make their characters similar?
Well, no. Although Wooddell and Whitthorne did observe each other's physicality and mannerisms during rehearsals, their goal was to make the identical twins quite different, as befitting their different upbringings. "If the twinning is identical, the audience misses some of the comedy," Whitthorne says.
"I've stolen a bit from Paul, he's stolen a bit from me," says Wooddell, adding that twinship is established mostly through costumes and makeup. "It all comes down to facial hair and a mole." As it happens, both actors have, in the same spot, a tiny facial mole, exaggerated with makeup for the show.
Wooddell and Whitthorne are not among those who think of "The Comedy of Errors" as a laugh machine with little substance. Both say that what lies beneath -- longing, loss and tragedy -- gives the comedy an uncommon gravity.
"It's nature versus nurture," Whitthorne says. "My character, Antipholus of Ephesus, is an orphan, raised in a warring society. He doesn't know he has a twin brother, Antipholus of Syracuse, who grew up in a city of commerce."
Wooddell's Antipholus, raised by his father, knows of his twin and has been searching for him. He falls for the sister of his brother's wife, who, inevitably, mistakes her brother-in-law for her husband. His language is more poetic than that of his earthier brother, but ultimately, as Whitthorne says, "we complete each other."
The director, Douglas C. Wager, is striving to get to the heart of the play, according to Wooddell, but that doesn't mean this production skimps on laughs.
"Doug is really serious about his comedy," Whitthorne says, noting that Wager has put the cast through strenuous paces to perfect every comic detail in the Bard's tightly constructed play.
"The Comedy of Errors" is providing quite a change of pace for Wooddell, who was last seen as Cassio in the Shakespeare Theatre's "Othello." Whitthorne's previous roles for the company include Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet" and Demetrius in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." In addition to their twin moles, the actors have twin degrees from the Juilliard School.