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Hartford Stage Adds 1960s Twist To 'Comedy Of Errors'

What now? How chance thou art return'd so soon?

—Antipholus of Syracuse, to Dromio of Ephesus, in "The Comedy of Errors"

It's no small thing that Hartford Stage Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak has been able to bring Shakespeare back as an annual part of the Hartford Stage schedule. Not only have the shows — directed by Tresnjak himself — proven popular with subscribers, but hundreds of students are able to see them at special performances.

Next year's Shakespeare offering is already being planned. Knowing that there will be a Shakespeare each season gives Tresnjak time to consider which of the bard's three dozen plays he wants to do when, and how best to do them.

This year, after doing three tragedies in a row ("Macbeth" in 2014, "Hamlet" in 2015 and "Romeo & Juliet" in 2016), Tresnjak is taking the comedy plunge with a beach-party production of "The Comedy of Errors."

"I've been thinking of doing this production of 'The Comedy of Errors' for years," Tresnjak said after a rehearsal earlier this month. The style of the show — which Tresnjak not only directs but designed — can vaguely be described as "1960s." But it's not the hipster-jazz 1960s Tresnjak brought to John Van Druten's witchcraft comedy "Bell, Book and Candle" at Hartford Stage in 2012, nor is it the mid-20th-century foreign-film feel in which he wrapped "Romeo & Juliet" a year ago.

This "Comedy of Errors" takes some of its beats and vibes from the 1960 pop hit "Never on Sunday." It was the title song of a movie starring Melina Mercouri, but is played live and explored in a few different ways here. Two musicians are part of the acting ensemble, which also features an acrobat. Tresnjak says he's even inserted a '60s-style "early Bollywood musical number" into the show, featuring the play's sorcerer character Dr. Pinch.

The director says the '60s trappings "go to the psychology of the characters. One number has the whole cast dancing. It's very joyous. It's been a blast, and that's a good thing these days."

Setting this mistaken-identity comedy in a different place, with a fresh attitude, is something Shakespeare had in mind when he took "Menaechmi," an ancient Roman comedy by Plautus, added a second pair of twins to the already mixed-up plot and moved the action from the somewhat stodgy city of Epidamnos to the more bustling Ephesus.

"The Comedy of Errors" has in turn been made into two popular musicals: "The Boys from Syracuse" and "The Bomb-itty of Errors." Tresnjak's production of the play has a cast of 22 — 14 professionals, plus a bunch of Hartt School students. That makes for a lot of comical chaos.

"People focus on the twins," Tresnjak says, "but the sisters are very interesting. One of them is subservient. The other is like Martha in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.'" He's referring to the meek Luciana, who lives in Ephesus with her strong-willed sibling Adriana and Adriana's husband Antipholus. (There's another Antipholus, Antipholus of Syracuse, who was separated as a child from the Ephesus one. They both have servants named Dromio, who are also long-lost twins. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.)

"I've been very passionate about this play for a long time," Tresnjak continues. "What I find interesting is that there's theater that's great literature and other theater that's fun in performance. There's something liberating about that. This is Shakespeare's shortest play — 90 minutes, no intermission. I've cut it a little, for the flow, and honestly because some of the jokes don't work in 2017.

"The fart jokes," he reminds us, "are in the text." He's talking about this bit of drollery from one of the twin Dromios:

A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind

Ay, and break it in your face, he break it not behind.

"People have debated whether this play is a farce or not," Tresnjak says. "It is farcical, but at the end it's very inclusive. There's a place at the table for everybody at the end. In the wake of the [presidential] election, all the shaming and bullying in this play seems different. The Duke [Solinus, ruler of Ephesus] definitely has issues with merchants from overseas. It has a Jerry Springer quality by the end.

"The older I'm getting, the funnier life seems," the director muses. "Comedy as a response to things seems more courageous."

"THE COMEDY OF ERRORS" by William Shakespeare, is at Hartford Stage through Feb. 12. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., with added 2 p.m. matinees on Jan. 21 and 25 and Feb. 4 and 11, plus added 7:30 p.m. Sunday performances on Jan. 15 and 29. Tickets are $25 to $90, $20 for students. 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org.

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