- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

Director Douglas C. Wager has a touch with comedy as sure as a spritz to the kisser from a seltzer bottle. He brings his whoopee-cushion aesthetic to Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” and surely the ghosts of the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges and Milton Berle are grinning down from on high.

Comic anarchy rules in his riotous production, with its Casbah-like setting in which Bing Crosby and Bob Hope would feel right at home. Zack Brown’s scenery gives highbrow nods to the surreal art of M.C. Escher, Giorgio De Chirico, Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali, but his costumes are pure silent-movie fantasy: Jaunty red fezzes abound, along with comically curled slippers; belly-dancing costumes that are sexy and zanily over-the-top; lavishly fake mustaches; makeup as subtle as vaudeville; and flowing, bejeweled robes and vests that seem to have wandered off the set of a Cecil B. DeMille epic.

Mr. Brown’s palette — lustrous colors that recall Persian miniatures — gives a visual kick to “The Comedy of Errors,” a contrast to the cool lines and crisp perspectives of the scenery. The design echoes Mr. Wager’s vision of the play as a world where the familiar and knowable suddenly can give way to a mind-bending parallel universe where nothing is as it seems — an upended realm Shakespeare visited in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Tempest” and “As You Like It,” among other plays.

With “The Comedy of Errors,” which many scholars believe is an early play, Shakespeare seems to be going flat-out for laughs. While some darker elements exist along with a glimmer of romance, “The Comedy of Errors” exploits the device of mistaken identity with unabashed merriment.

Shakespeare goes for broke here with — count ‘em — two sets of twins separated after a shipwreck. Antipholus (Gregory Wooddell) and Dromio (Daniel Breaker) of Syracuse arrive in the Middle Eastern mecca of Ephesus as complete strangers, but everyone seems to know them and to want to give them money, feasts, lovin’, and fancy jewelry. On the other hand, Antipholus (Paul Whitthorne) and Dromio (LeRoy McClain) of Ephesus suddenly find themselves pariahs in their hometown — people are oddly angry with them and seek their arrest.



Among the miffed is Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife, the snit-prone Adriana (Chandler Vinton), who takes her husband’s not coming home for dinner as a rebuke. Things get more complicated when the other Antipholus falls in love with her sister, Luciana (Marni Penning), whom he leaves both confused and undone after he woos her in the topiary garden.

The double takes, puns and physical humor have been around since Plautus discovered the Roman equivalent of the rubber chicken, so much of “The Comedy of Errors” depends on the inventiveness of the actors and the mad extremes to which the director is willing to go. Happy to report that Mr. Wager stops at nothing, even having the Marx Brothers and Dali make an impromptu appearance in the antic second act and throwing in a hilariously desperate soft-shoe number just for giggles.

Mr. Wooddell and Mr. Breaker are deliriously simpatico as the boys from Syracuse, an unbeatable comic team. Mr. Breaker is particularly adept at mugging and loopy body movement — in one scene, he has a rowdy conversation with his manhood, and in another, he mimics a dog so well you want to flip him a biscuit.

As the Ephesus pair, Mr. Whitthorne and Mr. McClain are not quite as comically adroit, but Mr. McClain’s Dromio deserves praise for his original reactions to the blows and bops perpetually showered upon him. A helium-voiced Miss Penning gives goofy lightness to the role of Luciana, a contrast to the elegant hailstorm of emotion that is Miss Vinton’s Adriana.

Floyd King has a priceless cameo as the quack conjurer Doctor Pinch, a roly-poly fellow so stereotypical he lacks only a magic carpet. The facial expressions and clowning he employs to go along with his cheesy magic tricks make the second act almost unbearably funny.

Similarly, Sandra L. Murphy takes the timeworn visual gag of a plus-sized woman and makes her vivacious and alive in her appetites. In the thankless role of one of the few somber characters, Ralph Cosham strikes the right balance between seriousness and a subtle acknowledgment of farce.

“The Comedy of Errors” does not tax the intellect, but in Mr. Wager’s gleefully slapstick production, your funny bone will get a great workout.

***1/2

WHAT: “The Comedy of Errors” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 8.

TICKETS: $14.25 to $71.25

PHONE: 202/547-1122

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