Review by Joe DeRosa; photo by Liz Lauren
When it comes to reviewing a Shakespeare comedy about the many ways that things can go wrong–mistaken identity, ridiculously poor decision making, and the farcical way fate can scramble our lives—it’s probably a good idea to be sure the message is crystal clear, doesn’t mince words, gets straight to the point. So let’s give it a try…
The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Short Shakes version of The Comedy of Errors is ninety minutes of pure comedic bliss.
No, that’s not quite it. It’s not that the play isn’t super funny, because it is. Make no mistake, this play is side-splittingly funny. But it isn’t quite bliss. Like any great comedy, at some points, many points, very many points, The Comedy of Errors makes us really uncomfortable… but in the best way! The high-energy, “can you believe this is happening to me?” acting is so strong, and the twists and turns feel so crazy, you can’t help but feel uncomfortable, maybe even a little cringy, but, like I said… in the best way!
Let’s start with the writing. It’s Shakespeare. Most scholars and theatre people would automatically, therefore, say it is brilliant. But this is brilliant. Even though he wrote it more than 400 years ago and his use of language can be a bit off-putting at times, the play is still every bit as relevant today as it was back then, and by relevant I mean hilarious. He bakes some heavy themes into the plot to give it a little heft–rival cities, love and marriage, class violence, and the coercive use of power by the state–but mostly he gives us a play that is just really, really funny. Funny 400 years ago, still funny today.
The plot centers around two sets of identical twins separated in infancy by a storm at sea. To complicate things, both pairs of identical twins have identical names–Antipholus and Dromio. When Antipholus and Antipholus are separated, along with their servant/friends (it’s complicated) Dromio and Dromio, by a shipwreck, Antipholus is raised by his father, Egeon, and is, for the rest of the play, known as Antipholus of Syracuse. His servant/friend, Dromeo? You guessed it–Dromeo of Syracuse. The other Antipholus is raised by his mother, Emilia, in the city of Ephesus, so he gets to be Antipholus of Ephesus. His Dromeo? Yep, Dromeo of Ephesus. When Antipholus and Dromeo of Syracuse travel to Ephesus in search of their brothers, hilarious hijinx in the form of repeated cases of mistaken identity by pretty much everyone who knows Antipholus and Dromeo of Ephesus ensue. If you are still reading, thank you.
The play works because the humor works, and the humor works on a number of levels. Eli Newell’s “Short Shakes” comedy is a perfect take on critically acclaimed Chicago director David Bell’s adaptation of the original. Bell’s careful choices build and then heighten the humor, and Newell’s keen direction maximizes the moments with a shrewd understanding that even if the bard’s use of language is, at times, a bit beyond reach, the action on stage tells the story. Featuring brilliant performances delivered with breathtaking energy and pitch-perfect emphasis on moments that highlight Shakespeare’s comedic brilliance, Bell and Newell’s Comedy maximizes Shakespeares’s ample comedic possibilities with a perfect blend of slapstick humor and sharp wit. The result is a tightly packed, high-energy, 90-minute play that reaches everyone in the audience, regardless of age.
Adam Wesley Brown (Antipholus of Syracuse) and Casey Hoekstra (Antipholus of Ephesus) anchor a litany of strong performances in their roles as the co-confused-leading men. Brown captures the lost in space feeling of a stranger in a strange land where everybody seems to know him, but he doesn’t recognize a soul, while Hoekstra beautifully conveys the exasperated confusion of a man at home in a place where everything is the same and somehow, all at once, everything has changed.
Nora Carrol and Phoebe Gonzalez both give strong performances in their roles as Adriana and Luciana, sisters in search of clarity when faced with the sudden reality that the men in their lives–and in much of the town of Ephesus, for that matter–seem to have lost their minds. Liliana Castillo (Emilia) and Drew Shirley (Egeon) also deliver as the parents of the brothers Antipholi, not to mention in several other key roles. Shirley is hysterical as Luce the kitchen wench, and Castillo steps in at pivotal moments as the Troupe Manager and later as the Courtesan, to introduce the action and provide resolution. Samuel Douglas, Jack D. Olin, and Dan Plehal shine as slapstick acrobatic waiters, alongside strong performances by Nima Rakhshanifar (Angelo) and Laurence Stepney (Duke of Ephesus).
In a production without a weak link, Sam Linda and Ian Mayfield threaten to steal the show as the brothers Dromeo. Both bring a perfect combination of comedic timing and delivery, along with extraordinary energy and athleticism, as they fly around the stage, bearing the brunt of abuse wrought by a series of hilarious cases of mistaken identity. While the two Dromeos share a bumbling nature and flair for acrobatics, Linda’s slightly more sympathetic and sweet Dromeo of Ephesus serves as an interesting contrast to Mayfield’s frantically funny take on the role. And if the entire 90 minutes of the play consisted of Mayfield’s wild flight from the kitchen wench, Dromeo of Ephesus’s wife, who mistakes Dromeo of Syracuse for her husband, it would have been worth the price of the ticket.
In a production replete with slapstick humor, form meets function in Tom Burch’s stage design. Burch and Alan E. Schwanke’s scenic elements build a space perfect for acrobatic waiters and Dromeos, but also interesting is its old-time carnival meets Turkish city in the late 1500s esthetic. Ana Kuzmanic’s costume, Michelle E. Benda’s lighting, and Eric Backus’s sound designs perfectly capture the feel of what can best be described as a Shakespearean circus.
So here it is in a nutshell. There is something about this absolutely farcically stupid and implausible, yet utterly brilliant and whimsically wonderful play for everyone to love. It’s designed for families–the Chicago Shakespeare Theater describes it as “perfect for children ages ten and up”–so I brought my fourteen-year-old son to the 11 am Saturday morning Chicago opening. He’s a happy kid and he loves to laugh, but still… about halfway through the performance, he looked at me and said, “This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!” And, in truth, I don’t disagree.
The Comedy of Errors is playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at 800 E Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60611 on Saturdays at 11 am until February 29th. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.