Company's surreal take on classic

Opener: Chesapeake Shakespeare starts its second season with `The Comedy of Errors.'

Howard Live

Review

November 13, 2003|By R.N. Marshall | R.N. Marshall,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Step into the intimate black box theatre at Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City and enter a world that artfully blends Federico Fellini and Salvador Dali with vintage Flash Gordon, plus a dash of The Wizard of Oz. You have stumbled into the realm of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, a second-season opener for the exceptionally professional Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

Based on an ancient Roman play, titled Menaechmi by Plautus (a Neil Simon of his day), Shakespeare adapted The Comedy of Errors as one of his earliest works. It is also one of Shakespeare's shortest plays.

It's a simple tale in structure that grows convoluted as the plot thickens. An old man from Syracuse named Egeon has broken the law by stumbling into the forbidden city of Ephesus in search of his son and his son's personal slave. He finds himself before a powerful duke in defense of his life. Making his case, Egeon tells how his wife once bore identical twin boys, both named Antipholus. Subsequently, they also bought a pair of identical twins, both named Dromio, from a poor family to rear as servants for their sons.

The family members separated when their ship split open in a storm. Egeon (with one son and slave in hand) lost his wife, the other twin son and his slave. Years later, Egeon's now-grown son, Antipholus, believes his missing brother and mother to be alive and takes his slave, Dromio, off in search of kin.

The separated son lost long ago (the other Antipholus) is still with his slave (the other Dromio) and has ended up as a wealthy, married and highly respected citizen of Ephesus.

The Antipholus from Syracuse shows up in Ephesus and is immediately confused for his affluent brother. This mistaken identity leads to mayhem as matters go from bad to worse. A litany of characters (wives, merchants, policemen, even the two Dromios) are convinced that their Antipholus (pick one) has gone insane.

Mounting situations contradict one another, and attempts at explanation are misconstrued.

Perhaps the plot is too contrived or obvious? Forget not that this 400-year-old play is the great-granddaddy of them all.

Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors has been the basis and inspiration for centuries of comedy and drama. Plot twists resound with contemporary echoes of The Parent Trap, Blood Brothers and The Prince and the Pauper. Films such as Big Business, with Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin as separated twins mismatched at birth by a nearsighted nurse, come to mind.

Comedy of Errors director Christopher Marino paints his theatrical canvas with great attention to detail, creating a constantly moving visual arena. He and his creative team bring to life a different world that is colorful, energetic and vibrant. This production is rich, employing painted faces with darkened eyes (adeptly created by costume and makeup designer Melanie Lester) instead of traditional masks.

Simple set and lighting design by company technical director Dan O'Brien use colorful door frames mounted at oblique angles that open into an array of locations.

Half a clock, oddly numbered, with curled hands suggests Dali's melted timepieces pouring over tabletops. Lighting often illuminates the actors from footlights, creating a vaudeville atmosphere.

Sound design, also by director Marino and artistic director Ian Gallaner, employs carnival-esque music and sound effects that enhance the surreal society. It is like a ride through the funhouse at a boardwalk amusement park.

There is not a weak performance from the lot.

It is an ensemble full of energy where all the actors invest great passion in their roles. Some of the evening's broadest humor bubbles forth from the two Dromios, played deftly as Scottish lads.

One twin is actress Judith McSpadden; the other is actor Charles Drexler. So close as a pair that no second thought appears that they are not identical brothers.

These dutiful and devoted poor souls bear the brunt of their master's wrath in true Punch and Judy style - for doing exactly what told to do by their misidentified superiors.

Saskia de Vries is deliciously fierce as the sultry and controlling psycho wife of the well-heeled Antipholus of Ephesus. Her wicked portrayal is reminiscent of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Angelo, the Goldsmith, played by Jonathan Judge-Russo, is a cross between Wilmer Valderrama's character Fez on television's That '70s Show and the mayor of Munchkinland.

For non-Shakespeare scholars, the language may at first come across as foreign; however, in no time the ear adjusts. Physical interpretation adds so much that it helps dissolve the barriers.

A brief trip to the Internet for a more detailed synopsis may enhance the playgoing experience.

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays this week and next, with a matinee at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, at Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Tickets are $15. Information: 877-639-3728 or www. chesapeakeshakespeare.com.

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