Actors do delightful double duty as twins in innovative staging of the Bard's 'Comedy of Errors'

THEATER REVEIW

February 03, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

WASHINGTON — Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" has been presented as an opera, a circus, a Western, and a Broadway musical. By now, there may be nothing that hasn't been tried. But British director John Retallack, making his American debut at the Shakespeare Theatre, has chosen a clever twist.

He has one actor playing each of the comedy's two sets of twins. Philip Goodwin portrays Antipholus of Syracuse and his long-lost brother, Antipholus of Ephesus; and Floyd King portrays their twin servants, Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus.

It's a neat trick, and watching these skilled actors carry it off is the most amusing aspect of a production, which, in other respects keeps falling a few yuks short of a belly laugh.

One reason is that, even though Goodwin and King shoulder most of the burden, they make it seem effortless, whereas much of the rest of the comedy feels forced. This is particularly true in the later going when Retallack, who has transported the action to the early 20th century, has the cast --ing on and off stage in the derivative, uninspired manner of a Keystone Kops chase.

But back to Goodwin and King, who are definitely inspired. Since most of the comedy in "The Comedy of Errors" is of the mistaken-identity variety, doubling the main roles exacerbates one of the play's toughest challenges -- making sure that, even though the twins are constantly confused, the audience never is.

Visually, costume designer Candice Donnelly solves this problem by simply adding scarves to the actors' apparel when they are portraying the pair from Ephesus. But what really makes this device succeed is the way the actors differentiate between their characters' personalities.

This is where Goodwin shines. Decked out like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus searching for the brother from whom he was separated in infancy. A self-effacing, basically gentle soul, he quickly concludes that Ephesus is a grand place. People hand him money and jewelry, and a woman claiming to be his wife throws herself at him.

Goodwin's Antipholus of Ephesus, however, is a cockier

character. Egotistical and a bit of a dandy, he has a violent streak that goes into high gear when he is unexpectedly greeted by nothing but misfortune in his own town. His money disappears, his goods go undelivered, and as the height of indignity, he is locked out of his house and winds up in jail.

As the twin Dromios, who look like Chico Marx, rubber-limbed King makes the distinctions more subtle; his Syracusian has a childish, playful streak, while his Ephesian is a frustrated, long-suffering lackey.

The production is notable in several other respects, not the least of which is Franchelle Stewart Dorn's loud-mouthed performance the shrewish wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. In addition, Russell Metheny's realistic set is as pretty as a picture postcard of an Italian town square. And the incidental music provided by an onstage guitar, accordion and mandolin trio enhances the production's occasional "Godfather" aura.

Nonetheless, although "The Comedy of Errors" is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays, the pace lags. One thing that holds your interest is wondering how the director will handle the ending, when the two sets of twins come face to face. I won't give that away, except to say that Retallack takes the easy way out, but it works. For that matter, the ending sums up the effect of the entire production -- it's more satisfying than funny.

THEATER REVIEW

What: 'The Comedy of Errors'

Where: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through March 14.

Tickets: $20-$42.

Call: (202) 393-2700.

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