By Bill Beard
Why is it that theater directors…and audiences…so enjoy giving Shakespeare’s plays some new “concept”—like The Taming of the Shrew set in the Wild West, or Macbeth in the middle of Wall Street?
Well, now, The Court Theatre, on the campus of The University of Chicago, has gone to new lengths with director Sean Graney’s current adaptation of the Bard’s seldom-produced early work, The Comedy of Errors. Actually, the play is already an adaptation of the Roman comedy The Menaechmi, or Twins, by Rome’s primary comedy playwright, Plautus (254-184 BC). That plot revolved around twin brothers, separated in childhood. When one twin, with a servant in tow, goes searching for his brother and arrives in the city where that brother has been living with wife and friends around him, having no idea the other is there, the constant mistaken identity mishaps that result create considerable chaos.
Shakespeare added to the confusion in his version, by adding a second set of twins, in the two servants, also separated in childhood. Contrived? Of course, but who does that sort of thing better than Shakespeare?
Well, director Graney certainly has tried. He has cast his show with only six actors playing 22 roles; one actor playing both twin masters, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, and one actor playing both twin servants, Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus. Two other males, plus two females, complete the cast, each playing multiple roles, with dozens of amazing quick costume changes.
The pace is brisk, the energy high, and the acting is excellent overall. Eric Hellman as Antipholus I and II is in fine command of the stage at all times; Stacy Stoltz is lovely as Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Syracuse; and Steve Wilson and Kurt Ehrmann accomplish a variety of wild characters with ease and finesse.
But it is the consummate clowning of Alex Goodrich as the Dromio twins that is the source of much of the spontaneous laughter; Goodrich created the Dromios as distinctly different characters, with his Dromio of Syracuse growing constantly funnier and funnier. He is rivaled only by the dynamic Elizabeth Ledo’s straight-faced dry wit and sense of comic timing in the role of Adriana’s sister, Luciana, and also as her outlandishly farcical house wench, Lucy.
Of course, much of the success of this farce is directly dependent on the fantastic work of the four backstage dressers, handling constant quick changes for all six actors. These four women were the absolute key to the whole casting gimmick. The show could never have worked without them; and their names did not even appear in the program. At least they were given a curtain call.
Obviously, the audience had a great time. Everyone loves farce. Thankfully, the farcical elements did not entirely obliterate the brilliant satire and poetry beneath. But unfortunately, much of the original script’s wonderful finale was lost. The brothers are finally brought together, recognize and reunite, and find out as well that their elderly father is in Ephesus, looking for them, and that their long-lost mother is actually living as a nun in the local convent.
But with both twins being played by one actor, that warm and funny family reunion couldn’t really happen when the brothers couldn’t confront and recognize one another. So, instead, director Graney contrived a frenetic finale, recapping much of the evening’s follies, using every door, trapdoor, window and hole in the huge and ugly back wall of the set, in the slapstick style of the Keystone Cops. Hilariously funny, yes; but somewhat disappointing.
This Comedy of Errors was indeed imaginative, innovative, downright crazy. I think that Shakespeare would have laughed a lot; he probably would have loved its weird creative genius. But he may also have sued for plagiaristic distortion.
The production runs through Oct. 17. For information, phone (773) 753-4472, or go online at CourtTheatre.org.
From the Oct. 6-12, 2010 issue