The magic of live theater has never been more evident than it was Saturday night at the College of St. Elizabeth, where the premiered its annual outdoor production at the school’s throwback stone-and-grass amphitheater.
Following intermission and sundown, the second act of “The Comedy of Errors” had just begun when a large, loud and very visible fireworks show exploded in the night sky.
The company is known for preparing clever improvisations for airplane interruptions from nearby Morristown Airport, but this lengthy distraction proved to be more of an unexpected challenge. Fortunately, it was no match for this talented troupe, which has 50 years of experience to fall back on. Not only did they soldier on, but they worked it into the show, creating a truly memorable experience for the large and appreciative crowd.
It also helped that “The Comedy of Errors” is one of Shakespeare’s silliest works and productions on this stage are tailored for improvisation and audience interaction. Actors frequently enter and exit on the long stairways through of the Greek Theatre, including the clownish Dromio of Ephesus (Sean Hudock), who stopped to present a flower to a starstruck little girl. Like many of the children in attendance, she also benefitted from the editing (down to two hours, including intermission and fireworks) that is done for the outdoor shows here to make them more family friendly.
Dromio of Ephesus, of course, has a twin Dromio (Jack Moran) from Syracuse. For those who don’t know the familiar story, Matt Sullivan does a good job of laying out the plot in the first scene. His character, Egeon of Syracuse, is a merchant who has just been arrested and sentenced to death by the Duke of Ephesus (Phillip Christian) since Ephesus and Syracuse are warring factions in ancient Greece.
Egeon doesn’t really care because he’s at the end of a sad journey. He softens the heart of the Duke with his tale of a happy life with a wife and twin sons. Each son was attended to by a twin slave son of a poor woman who gave birth the same time as his wife.
But when a tempest hits their boat while they are at sea, the family is separated. We soon learn that his sons, both named Antipholus, survived with their respective Dromios and grew up in Syracuse and Ephesus, respectively.
While the Duke gives Egeon a day to collect a ransom, the now-grown Antipholus of Syracuse (Matthew Simpson) arrives in Ephesus to search for his lost brother. Their presence sets off the legendary comedy of errors as he and his Dromio are mistaken for his brother Antipholus (Philip Mutz) and the other Dromio. The confused Epheseans include Antipholus’ wife, Adriana (Amanda Duffy) and her sister, Luciana (Allison Layman), a goldsmith (Jay Leibowitz) and other merchants.
Romance occasionally softens the comedy, with Duffy and Layman delighting the crowd with their confused passions, but slapstick rules the day. Director Jason King Jones, who has worked this stage successfully several times, dresses the Dromios in Chaplin-esque formal tramp attire, a signal that this will not be a tragedy.
The fireworks might have resulted in a disaster, but the actors turned them into an advantage. Moran got it going by using the explosions as punctuations for some of his lines. Others followed his lead, but at one point, it was too loud to ignore, so the characters onstage just stopped to marvel at the spectacle and were soon joined by others who did not belong, but wandered out just the same.
The audience, caught up in the spirit, joined in with an impromptu singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Before it was over, the play resumed with the nicely timed scene where the flamboyant exorcist, Doctor Pinch (Christian again, on a night he will never forget), is summoned to rid Antipholus and Dromio of the demons that seem to be turning them into different people. Christian pointed to the fireworks as evidence of his powers, exiting and returning several times when the explosions simply would not quit.
The delightful conclusion was somewhat anticlimactic at this point, but the cast could hardly be blamed. On a night when they found themselves up against some truly bizarre competition, they proved that the lights in the sky were not the only stars.
I can’t promise you the same pyrotechnic performance, but it’s hard to imagine anyone not having a special evening in this splendid company. Once again, even in a heat wave, the Shakespeare Theatre’s annual outdoor celebration of live theater is the coolest treat of the summer.
Don’t forget to bring a picnic supper, perhaps even a bottle of wine, to share on the lovely campus. You can even bring it in the theater.
“The Comedy of Errors” runs through July 29 at the Greek Theatre, College of St. Elizabeth, 2 Convent Road, Florham Park. Tickets $27 to $33 adults, $15 ages 17 and younger. For more information, call 973-408-5600 or visit www.shakespearenj.org.