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“The Comedy of Errors” is one of the Bard’s earliest (and shortest) plays and – judging from Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s take on it – one of his funniest.

The humor in the story comes from some excruciating puns and other bantering wordplay, but seriously gets its light side from broad slapstick revolving around mistaken identities.

The action centers on two sets of twins who were accidentally separated at birth and come unknowingly together in the town of Ephesus (a place historically identified with magic and strange events). Antipholus and his servant Dromio (of Syracuse) arrive there, where identical twin Antipholus (yep, same name) and his Dromio have been living since the pairs of siblings were separated during a sea voyage and each parent was able to grab and save one of the sets.

When the unknown identical twins begin to interact with townspeople who know the other set (including a very confused wife), things start going awry.

Although hysterically done through slapstick approaches to improbable events, the play includes some dark undertones – beatings, a near seduction of the wife, an almost beheading, theft, and thoughts of madness, demonic possession and marital infidelity. The Bard gets away with it because the audience knows what’s going on. The unaware characters look silly – and that helps keep things on a light note and heading in the right direction.

To partially paraphrase another Shakespeare play, all ends well. The brothers are reconciled, romance blossoms, husbands reunite with wives. In short, social order is restored.

The Ohio Shakespeare Festival, a Knight Arts grantee, and director Terry Burgler, have a marvelous cast that hoots and hollers in old Renaissance style. They kept the opening night audience laughing through the curtain calls.

Terry Burgler, director, "The Comedy of Errors," Ohio Shakespeare Festival.

Terry Burgler, director, “The Comedy of Errors,” Ohio Shakespeare Festival.

Benjamin Fortin, as Dromio I, nearly stole the show. He’s a very gifted physical comedian – playing the character broad with over-the-top speeches and quirky body movements. He seems eternally astounded and perplexed – and does it with relish. The pitch of his performance made him a joy to watch.

Joining him in stretching the fun was Bernard Bygott. What seemed particularly good about him was his ability to expand and intensify the emotional quandary of his character (who is constantly misunderstood and put upon) so that as all the problems being created by mistaken identities come together, he seems at the point of totally losing control.

The players were almost to the person superb in their parts – smaller or larger ones. Veteran Karen Wood was amazing. She joined silently in the action even when standing way upstage or off stage right – and commanded attention.

Henry C. Bishop arrived onstage as a fully-developed character of the smarmy conjuror, leaving a memorable impression, as did Lara Knox and Tess Burgler in their larger family roles as the wife of one Antipholus and the love object of the other.

Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s “The Comedy of Errors” will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through July 21 at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron; 330-673-8761; www.ohioshakespeare.org. Tickets are $30 for center seating, $25 for open seating and $15 for students.

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