Dial the Wayback Machine to the year 2004. The Folger Theatre is mounting Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, directed and re-imagined by veteran DC director Joe Banno. He’s transported it to an Italian neighborhood in New York City loaded with tricksters and Mafiosi, all speaking in dialect. It’s a laff-riot funny, a production for all time. Why bother ever doing this play again?
Fast-forward to 2011 and guess what? The Folger is doing Comedy of Errors again, this time with a new director—Aaron Posner—and an entirely new concept. And we’re happy to report they’ve scored yet again, big time. The company’s irresistible, all-new take loads contemporary satire and vaudeville slapstick into Shakespeare’s already winning script.
The madness begins when you open your program. Is it upside down or rightside up? It’s a program within a program. Are we viewing a Folger production here? Or have they actually hired a special guest company—The Worcestershire Mask and Wig Society—direct from London to do the show?
Posner’s approach to Shakespeare’s classic is to re-cast it as a play within a play. As the lights fade, Timothy Tushingham (Bruce Nelson) appears on stage to introduce the audience to the Mask and Wig Society, a family theater company that’s been mounting plays in England for 250 years, give or take a lengthy hiatus in between.
“Timothy,” ad-libbing away, helps narrate a film about the company that quietly morphs into an amusing mockumentary on PBS documentaries and deadly Charlie Rose interviews. For extra credit (and fun), even Folger Shakespeare Library officials are interviewed.
The film, though, like the program, subtly supports the comic points Posner is trying to emphasize. The more you know about a family, the less you know. Twins can be the same, only different. And rules, like social conventions, are made to be flouted. The film runs a trifle too long, but it nonetheless proves a great way to launch the main event.
Comedy of Errors concerns the misadventures of a pair of upper class twins, Antipolus of Syracuse (Darragh Kennan) and Antipolus of Ephesus (Bruce Nelson). They’re separated from one another as young children due to a shipwreck that also separates their mom and dad as well as their equally youthful twin servants, now Dromio of Syracuse (Nathan Keepers) and Dromio of Ephesus (Darius Pierce).
When the Syracuse pair shows up in Ephesus some twenty years later, mistaken identities abound, a situation exacerbated by the xenophobic edicts of the Duke of Ephesus (Matthew R. Wilson). We’ll leave you there. The rest would require a book to explain.
Aaron Posner sets his Comedy in Edwardian times, outfitting his central players with dapper attire as well as masks, the better to make physically different actors seem more like twins. But Posner is also injecting the subtle point that most of us wear masks to disguise who we really are.
Supporting the Edwardian motif, scene designer Tony Cisek’s one-size-fits-all set is a surprisingly elaborate, colorful edifice loaded with both real and trick doors. The set itself provides another level of hilarity, allowing Posner to transform the production, at will, into French farce. Players fly in and out of doors, sometimes changing characters in the process, a little like “find the pea under the thimble” except with human beings.
Posner also inserts vaudeville and English music hall shtick into the show, calling to mind the time-honored Plautine antics of Groucho Marx, the Three Stooges, and even Benny Hill. Fortunately, the Folger’s cast is loaded with physically adept actors who can handle this strenuous stuff. Their leers, ear-pokes, and double takes had the audience in stitches during Sunday’s press opening night. Contributing to the zany atmosphere, the physical antics were accentuated by musical sound effects and rim shots tossed in by musician Jesse Terrill who perched at the edge of the stage throughout the show.
Posner’s direction was swift and sure Sunday evening. Blocking, slapstick, the slamming door routines, the outrageous shocks and surprises—all move at a dizzying pace. The actors bounce merrily from one side of the stage to the other without missing a beat or a line.
And speaking of the cast. What a splendid effort! No square wheels here. As the twins Antipolus, Darragh Kennan and Bruce Nelson were a pair of dynamos. In addition to giving each of their characters distinctive touches, they brilliantly played the straight men to their opposites, the rollicking servants Dromio, as portrayed by Nathan Keepers and Darius Pierce.
Keepers and Pierce were delegated the bulk of the slapstick action Sunday evening. They did a phenomenal job delineating their characters’ slight differences while giving 110% when it came to bouncing and tumbling through the physical comedy. We rarely see this intense level of energy in a stage production, and it was most welcome.
Although often portrayed as a distraught, sympathetic character, Adriana—wife of Antipolus of Ephesus—becomes a hyperventilating shrew as played by Suzanne O’Donnell. It’s a frenetic, madcap take on the part, and O’Donnell energizes every scene she’s in.
As Adriana’s sister, Luciana, Erin Weaver has a bit less material to work with, but makes the most of it, particularly in those scenes where she’s being wooed by Antipolus of Syracuse, whom she mistakenly thinks is her brother-in-law. (Which he actually, sort of, is.)
Stephen D’Ambrose’s sorrowing Egeon and Catherine Flye’s imperious Abbess ably round out Shakespeare’s dysfunctional family members. Rachel Zampelli’s saucy courtesan has all the right moves. And Matthew R. Wilson’s much put-upon Duke is surprisingly gracious and sympathetic as he painstakingly untangles the strings of Shakespeare’s complex plot.
The Folger’s new Comedy of Errors, like Joe Banno’s before it, is a winner hands down, proving that, at least in theater, lightning really can strike twice. Aaron Posner’s current update is seamless. The frame tale/film adds to the joke. And best yet, the actors’ British diction is beyond perfection—you don’t miss a single line or joke.
Grab a ticket now before they’re all gone. And if you have a teenaged Shakespeare skeptic at home, drag him or her along, too. You’ll never find a better or funnier intro to the Bard than this production.
The Comedy of Errors
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Aaron Posner
Produced by Folger Theatre
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: One hour and fifty-five minutes including intermission.