Make no mistake, `Errors' is irreverent fun

Theater Review

December 04, 2005|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Director Douglas C. Wager opens the Shakespeare Theatre's production of The Comedy of Errors on a serious note, but his sense of irreverence surfaces quickly.

The serious part takes the form of a mimed scene of a masked couple holding two sets of twin dolls, which are separated by a storm. The portentous tone continues when Egeon (Ralph Cosham), a merchant from Syracuse and father of one pair of the twins, is sentenced to death unless he can come up with ransom money.

His crime is being in the wrong place, Ephesus, at the wrong time; Syracusans face the death penalty merely for setting foot here. Wager's irreverence even creeps into this dire scene, however, when Egeon's sentence appears in the blaring headline of a tabloid newspaper.

Then two of the now-grown twins - Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse - show up in Ephesus, looking for their long-lost brothers, and merriment overflows as the townsfolk launch into a musical production number (by composer Fabian Obispo).

In subsequent scenes, Wager throws in everything from moving topiaries to brief appearances by Groucho and Harpo Marx, Salvador Dali and even a furry pink llama.

The plot - based on works by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus - turns on mistaken identities that are all the more perplexing because each set of twins is made up of a master and a servant and each pair has the same names, i.e., both masters are called Antipholus and both servants, Dromio.

Wager and his designer, Zack Brown, add to the improbability by setting the play in a surrealistic world where a melting clock, a la Dali, keeps time and the costumes have a Middle Eastern flavor that seems like a send-up of The Arabian Nights. (Nor does Brown stop at that; when characters appear in burqas, they turn out to be men in drag.)

The director also peppers the production with slapstick, which Daniel Breaker, as Dromio of Syracuse, is particularly adept at performing. Just watch him pop in and out of a giant topiary, and better yet, catch his stunned expression when the topiaries - and the walls - start shifting between scenes.

Marni Penning, a petite actress with a piercing voice, also displays a strong comic sensibility when she finds herself being courted by Gregory Wooddell's Antipholus of Syracuse, whom she believes to be her sister's husband - that is, she thinks he's Paul Whitthorne's Antipholus of Ephesus. (Don't worry if you're confused, Wager and his actors keep it all crystal clear on stage).

Adding to the foolishness is Floyd King's portrayal of a doctor as a turbaned, bearded magician, whose tricks include turning the Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio into tiny metal urns that emit squeaky little voices.

Near the end, the action becomes a farcical romp, and the house lights suddenly come on. Looking straight ahead, the actors are startled to find themselves facing an audience. Their reaction is to break into the Broadway number "42nd Street."

Of course, there's solid precedent for toying with The Comedy of Errors musically. Rodgers and Hart turned the Shakespearean comedy into a full-fledged musical, The Boys from Syracuse, in 1938. Although Wager doesn't go that far, when his actors kick up their heels and launch into song, they seem to be itching for more. Come to think of it, maybe it's time this proficient theater tried a bona fide musical.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

The Comedy of Errors continues at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington, through Jan. 8. Tickets are $14.25-$71.25. Call 877-487-8849 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.

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