Seeing one's reflection in a mirror was like peering into a fun house glass at the time of Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors," thought to be his first or second play (1592 or '93). So we can appreciate the revelation of one twin's observation to the other: "I see by you I am a sweet-faced youth."
That tender fraternal moment captures the charm of felicitously resolved mistaken identity -- establishing a recurrent theme in Shakespeare's plays that eschew tragedy or history.
The Public Theater's updated (1930s), relocated (Adirondacks) "Comedy of Errors" transforms the Bard's most economical play -- 1,800 lines in 90 minutes, no intermission -- into breathless farce with jazz-and-dance embellishments. If the two actors playing four lead roles appear winded at times, they're not acting. Exiting from one end of the expansive Shakespeare-in-the-Park stage and entering from the opposite requires sprints at near-Olympic speed.
Hamish Linklater as the Antipholus of Ephesus and his long-lost twin, Antipholus of Syracuse, pairs with Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the twin servants, each named Dromio. The four were separated as newborns during a shipwreck that also separated the mother from one son and child-servant. The latter two returned to Antipholus' father, Egeon, in Syracuse. Upon growing up, they set about to find their long-lost brothers. Years later, the father risks his life to search for the boys of Syracuse. Ephesus and Syracuse have since become such enemies that the former city penalizes by death any Syracusean caught without means to pay a fine. The duke is about to impose sentence when Egeon, played by Jonathan Hadary as a vaudeville-style traveling salesman, produces props to relate his sad story.
Meanwhile, each Antipholus and Dromio wander Ephesus without knowledge of the other pair. Their identical dress (a break for the actors) confounds townspeople, whether selling wares (goldsmith Robert Creighton) or sexual favors (courtesan De'Adre Aziza), or throwing fits of jealousy (resident Antipholus' wife, hysterically played by Emily Bergl) or sibling rivalry (Heidi Schreck as the unattached sister). Errors compound exponentially until one Antipholus and one Dromio are declared insane while the other two take refuge in an abbey. A gangster motif -- Skipp Sudduth's duke is a mob boss, while Becky Ann Baker's Abbess totes heat -- animates John Lee Beatty's indoor-outdoor set and Toni-Leslie James' period costumes.
But the sheer befuddled dexterity of Linklater ("The New Adventures of Old Christine") and Ferguson ("Modern Family") power director Daniel Sullivan's dual-piston engine that keeps the motor running at full comic throttle. Sullivan's optical trick in bringing the two sets of twins face to face delivers a satisfying payoff.
WHAT "The Comedy of Errors"
WHEN|WHERE 8:30 nightly through June 30 (except Monday), Delacorte Theater, Central Park
ADMISSION Free day-of-performance tickets distributed at noon, Delacorte (lines form early), or by random drawing online, shakespeareinthepark.org, 212-967-7555
BOTTOM LINE Twin piques, singular performances