Monday, July 8, 2013

COMEDY OF ERRORS Is Fast on Its Feet at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Kevin Rich (L) and Jordan Coughtry appear in The Comedy of Errors
The last time we saw Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors on stage at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, one actor played each of the play's two sets of twins. If that sounds confusing, let's just say that Shakespeare wrote the play to include two sets of identical twins who were separated at birth. The twins not only look exactly alike, but bear the same names. And they've never seen each other because during a storm at sea, Dad, one Egeon, split them up, so that one of his twin sons was lashed to Mom and one to him, along with one tiny twin servant child attached to each son. Fast forward to the current day, when we find two masters named Antipholus, one who has been living in Ephesus and one in Syracuse, and two servants named Dromio, with one Dromio in Ephesus, attached to that Antipholus, and the other in Syracuse, attached to that Antipholus. And in those two sets of identical twins lies most of the play's Comedy as everybody mistakes one for the other and comedic hijinks ensue involving gold, dinner, doors, infidelity and knocking about. The Errors, or the mistaken identities, furnish the farce.

Most productions use four actors to fill those roles, employing costumes, wigs, makeup, fake noses, what have you, to make the Antipholi and the Dromii resemble each other. In 2006, when director Chuck Ney helmed Comedy for the ISF, he used a single actor to play both separated-at-birth masters and a single actor to play both separated-at-birth servants. As I said in my review at the time, "The biggest for the actors playing Antipholus and Dromio, who have to race on and off stage and remember to change their headgear and accessories as well as their personae every time they re-enter. The Comedy of Errors is already a fast-paced farce, but singling Antipholus and Dromio turns it into a foot race."

The current Illinois Shakespeare Festival production, under the direction of Michael Cotey, goes for a middle ground. In this production, opening July 12, Cody Proctor and Jordan Coughtry appear as Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, respectively, while Kevin Rich stands alone, playing both Dromios. Yes, that's right. The last time we saw Comedy of Errors here, there were two actors covering the two sets of twins, the norm is four, and this time, there are three, just to mix things up.

Rich, who is also the Artistic Director of the Festival, is skilled and confident switching hats between Dromio 1 and Dromio 2, mining the comedy quite nicely, and actually building the laughs based on the fact that he is just one while his characters are two. Letting us in on the trick and acknowledging the absurdity makes the material even funnier.

Over in Antipholus territory, Coughtry and Proctor navigate their individual twins just fine. The only problem is that the actors don't really look that much alike. Comedy of Errors already requires audience members to not just step over the threshold of disbelief, but take a flying leap, what with all the coincidences at every turn. For the mistaken identity premise to fly, it would be nice if there were headgear or at least hairdos to help out the actors, so that the characters don't seem quite so silly when they mix up who's who.

Based on Fred M. Duer's bright Kismet scenic design and Juja Rivera Ramirez's slinky Thief of Bagdad costumes, this Comedy of Errors seems to be going for an Old Hollywood take on an Arab setting. Douglas Fairbanks comes to mind as a model for Coughtry's Antipholus, while I kept thinking of Miriam Hopkins when I looked at Nisi Sturgis's charming Luciana. Sturgis gives Luciana a more specific personality than the character usually gets, which serves to enliven her part of the plot. I also enjoyed the inclusion of vendors (Kelsey Bunner, Martin Hanna, Michele Stine and Arif Yampolsky, each manning a wagon) set around the edges of the action to provide sound effects and double takes.

Coming in at just two hours, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival Comedy of Errors is fast on its feet and a definite audience-pleaser.

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
The Theatre at Ewing

Director: Michael Cotey
Costume Designer: Juja Rivera Ramirez
Scenic Designer: Fred M. Duer
Lighting Designer: Sarah EC Maines
Sound Designer: Shannon O'Neill
Stage Manager: Sarah G. Chanis
Vocal Coach: Krista Scott

Cast: David Hathway, Carlos Kmet, Kelsey Bunner, Martin Hanna, Michele Stine, Arif Yampolsky, Preston "Wigasi" Brant, Eva Balistrieri, Cydney D. Moody, Amanda Catania, Cody Proctor, Thomas Anthiny Quinn, Kraig Kelsey, David Fisch, Lindsay Smiling, Joe Faifer, Allison Sokolowski, Jordan Coughtry, Kevin Rich, Andrew Voss, Nisi Sturgis and Wendy Robie.

Running time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

Remaining performances: July 12, 16, 20, 23, 26, 28 and 31; August 4, 6 and 8.

For ticket information, click here.

Please note that the performance of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production of The Comedy of Errors which I attended was a preview, which the Festival treats as a final dress rehearsal. Over the years, I have at times written about productions based on dress rehearsals or preview performances if there was some reason I was unable to attend the official opening night. As with any production, my remarks reflect the specific performance I saw, which in this case was a preview.


  1. The NY Public Theatre, in their outdoor summer venue in Central Park, just finished a run of "Comedy of Errors" with one actor each for the Antipholuses and Dromios: Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. I remember that the BBC video production did likewise (Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltrey), but of course there they had the aid of technical trickery so that eventually the identical twins could meet each other.

    I remember a lovely production at the Folger Shakespeare Theater back in 1982 that instead of the usual fast-paced hijinx treated it as a Wildean comedy of manners, very effectively. The premise was Europeans in a luxurious middle-Eastern hotel lobby, c. 1910. The wore pale linen suits and looked rather like Robert Benchley, and the Dromios wore chauffeur uniforms with bellboy-type hats, which helped make them look identical.

    It often gets adapted as a musical, doesn't it? "The Boys from Syracuse" is delightful and famous, but there was also a strange RSC version of the play (televised) directed by Trevor Nunn with simple-minded songs derived from some of the spoken lines. Fun cast, though, with Mike Gwilym and Roger Rees as the A's, Michael Williams and Nickolas Grace as the D's, Judi Dench (married to M Williams) as Adriana, Francesca Annis as Luciana, and (I notice) Richard Griffiths as an officer.

    And then there's "Oh, Brother!", a cute modern-day musical version that ran for 3 performances but got recorded. Now that's a cast! David Carroll and Harry Groener as one pair of twins, Alan Weeks and Joe Morton as their servants, and the ladies were Judy Kaye, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Alyson Reed.

  2. Roger Rees and Mike Gwilym are the ones with matching curly wigs (at least I hope that wasn't their real hair) and red-plaid platter collars that make them look like walking tables from an Italian restaurant. I've seen pictures of one with the Dromios wearing matching blue face makeup, and I saw one with huge (fake) noses on the Antipholi.

    The Wildean production you mention sounds much nicer, as a way of tempering the crude humor in the piece. I confess, COMEDY OF ERRORS is not at all my favorite Shakespeare. I don't enjoy the fat jokes or the way the fat servant is represented, so if she's excised altogether, I'm fine with that. In this projection, she was played by a he, with a definite Tyler-Perry-as-Medea look. Which... Well, that wasn't my favorite, either. My other problem with COE is how often Adriana comes off as a major beyotch. Even Judi Dench make her a shrew. For the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, the Miriam-Hopkins-esque Luciana helped lighten the misogyny. Here's a youtube clip of Roger Rees and Judi Dench: Beware the 70s clothes!

  3. Next up in Central Park is "Love's Labour's Lost: A New Musical," from the Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson team. Here are some preview clips and rehearsal shots:!loveslabourslost/cq8d

  4. And for a COE derivative, here's probably my favorite video rendition of the prize number from the Rodgers & Hart adaptation, "The Boys from Syracuse." It starts out pure straight '30s, and by the end is looking toward the '40s with all that crazy Andrews Sisters-style harmony.

    Rebecca Luker was also the Adriana when Encores did the show back in 1997. I need hardly add that *she* didn't play her as a beyotch.