- The Comedy of Errors
Doug Wager's production of Comedy of Errors, like his Two Gentleman of Verona, presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company a few years ago, was both a visual and intellectual feast. Strictly faithful to the text, Wager still found numerous opportunities to augment Shakespeare's humor with current and historical allusions that made the play both more accessible and more enjoyable than many productions of this play I have seen. Comedy opened with a dumbshow of a happy couple, each holding twin infants. As they faced a gathering storm at sea, they exchanged one of the two children so that each parent had one twin from each set. The dumbshow faded, leaving Egeon alone on stage to recount the story we had just seen and to detail how and why he came to be in Ephesus. From this somber opening mood, the scene quickly launched into a chorus of "Oh Happy Ephesus" a nearly full-cast production number sung to a middle-eastern tune by the company as natives of Ephesus.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company is renowned for its set and costume shops, and both were in excellent form in Comedy. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, dressed in safari outfits, entered, espied the daily headlines about the death sentence of a Syracusan merchant (Egeon), and sped off to buy native outfits to avoid being identified as unwelcome Syracusans. Ephesian garb was exotic, perhaps Turkish—flowing robes and fezzes. The two Antipholuses' costumes were reminiscent of Rudolph Valentino's The Sheik, and the Dromios wore starched white shirts with red plaid vests and red "Aladdin" shoes. Zack Brown's pale blue, surreal set, contained in an off-kilter picture frame, had a watchful eye and staircases, à la M.C. Escher, leading to nowhere. Left, right, and center stage sets rotated to present, as appropriate, the town center, the market, Antipholus of Ephesus's home, and the convent entrance. A melting Dali-esque clock dominated the set, not only reminding us that this play observes the unities of time and place but also ticking off the hours till Egeon's execution.
Wager is a movie buff and frequently conceives his plays as intersections of Hollywood classics. Describing this production as The Road to Morocco meets A Night in Casablanca, Wager gave us a whimsical, fast-paced, [End Page 111] zany but balanced production. Wager has written (in notes from his address to the cast) that he takes his comedy very seriously: "Unless I can locate the fear, the terror, the anxiety at the heart of the human dilemma that drives the play forward, then it is not going to be truly and genuinely painfully funny." While he mined the text for every possible twist on Shakespeare's one-joke play, Wager kept Egeon's impending execution front and center by having him wander through the town during the scene changes, whirling around and reaching out for help from all the passing folk. With a nod to Hollywood, Wager supplemented the single theme of mistaken identity with sight gags like silent cameo appearances by Groucho—customary cigar in hand—and Harpo Marx. He had Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse wander the streets of Ephesus in dreamlike amazement that they seem to be well known, a reference to the Hope and Crosby "road" movies. Thematically, the best sight gag was Salvador Dali walking through the crowd, seeing the distorted clock on which time ran backwards, the numbers literally melting off the clock, and carefully noting it in his sketchbook.
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