- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

Director Douglas Wager bids “Hello, Dali” to the Bard in his surrealistic take on William Shakespeare’s twins-fraught farce “The Comedy of Errors.”

The set design by Zack Brown will include a Salvadore Dali-esque melting clock and confounding staircases and towers in the style of artist M.C. Escher.

“The play examines how we see ourselves, and the surreal quality comes from the idea that one man’s nightmare is another man’s dream,” Mr. Wager says. To capture that disquieting dream world, he decided to evoke Dali, Escher and Giorgio De Chirico.

“These artists created compelling images that give a sense of mirage and dislocation, and that is why I think they fit so well in ‘Comedy of Errors,’” he explains. “The world of the play is one where anything can happen, where things look stable but are unsteady beneath the surface. There is a sense of everything being vulnerable and transient.”

The costumes combine Asian influences with early-20th-century European fashions and some flourishes from post-World War II Italian cinema.

“We didn’t want to bury the actors in Oriental clothing, especially the women, so I looked to early-20th-century designers, like Paul Poiret and Mario Fortuny, for the leading ladies,” Mr. Brown says. “The courtesans, on the other hand, are pure brothel fantasies. They look like something out of a Visconti film with their striped stockings.”

“The Comedy of Errors,” one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, ups the ante of mistaken identity by having two sets of twins — the Antipholi and the Dromios. When Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse arrive in the Middle Eastern city of Ephesus, they are greeted with open arms and coffers. At the same time, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus find themselves in perpetual hot water, shunned by friends and family and accused of acts they did not commit.

Shakespeare is the Silly Putty of playwrights. His works have been set in the Wild West, world wars and even the Borscht Belt — with mixed success. Mr. Wager is no fan of slapping a gimmicky motif or time period on top of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan prose.

“Sometimes, these productions can be so arbitrary, and there is no discernible reason to set Shakespeare on an ocean liner or in outer space other than the fact that you can,” the director says. “My take on this show is much more intrinsic to the journey of the play, which is all about mistaken identity.

“What happens to the twins is surreal and uncanny, almost an out-of-body experience. The Ephesus twins have lived in the city all their lives, and suddenly they are persona non grata. The Syracuse twins are new in town — strangers who become the toast of the town.”

Shakespeare uses this dislocation of identity as a springboard for laughs. “The play looks at how you prioritize who you are — do you define yourself by status, by how much money you have, or by being connected to home, hearth, and family?” Mr. Wager continues. “It is an exciting play to work on because there are pockets of poetry and perceptions about human existence amid the farcical comedy.”

Many productions of “The Comedy of Errors” emphasize the buffoonery and clowning, but Mr. Wager says he hopes his staging strikes more of a balance, embracing the play in all its contradictions.

“It is very funny, but not just about slapstick,” Mr. Wager says. “The comedy comes from the craziness and absurdity of being alive. Because if the play teaches you anything, it is that reality is only temporary, and nothing in life is completely certain.”

“The Comedy of Errors” plays through Jan. 8 at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Ticket prices range from $14.25 to $71.25. For more information, call the box office at 202/547-1122.

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