A Foolish Wit
The Bard's screwball comedy face plants
The version of The Comedy of Errors, now playing at the Evergreen Museum might easily be called Errors in the Comedy. The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival fails to milk the hilarity from one of the Bard's earliest plays and provides instead a mild-mannered amusement that prompts smiles rather than laughter--a bland British custard rather than a sugar rush-inducing Turkish baklava.
The Comedy of Errors is set in the Anatolian city of Ephesus, which Antipholus (Peter Mark Kendall) of Syracuse, Sicily, is visiting for the first time. Little does he know that his identical twin brother--also named Antipholus (Brendan Ragan) and thought to have died as an infant during a shipwreck--has been living in Ephesus for years. To further complicate matters, each Antipholus has a servant named Dromio (Peter Boyer and Mark Krawczyk), also identical twins separated in the same shipwreck.
Even for a farce, this is stretching coincidence a bit far, but the show can be very funny if the director and cast can seize on the similarities between the innocent and the guilty. For example, when Adriana (Gina Alvarado) of Ephesus mistakes the Syracuse Antipholus for her husband, she demands to know why he didn't show up for dinner on time. The stranger, never having seen this woman before, quite naturally claims that he didn't know he was expected at dinner. In doing so, however, he sounds so much like a lying husband that Adriana only gets angrier. Later, when the Ephesus Antipholus refuses to pay for the necklace he ordered, claiming that he never received it (it was received instead by his unknown brother), he sounds just like a lying customer, and the jeweler orders him arrested.
Anyone who has ever been innocent of an accusation knows that the more one proclaims that innocence, the more one sounds like a guilty person offering alibis. Capturing the frustration of that Catch-22 dilemma is the secret to making The Comedy of Errors work, but director Joe Brady and his cast capture it only intermittently. They are too often distracted by faltering focus and misguided gambits.
Brady places emphasis on the anything-but-universal experience of having an unknown identical twin living in the same city. He stresses the surrealism of the latter situation, even littering the stage with images from the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte: a giant pipe, an egg in a birdcage, a green apple in place of a face. It's the kind of overwrought, overly academic conceit that does the play no favors.
There are other questionable directorial decisions: the Syracuse Antipholus and Dromio often banter as if they were Abbott and Costello; Adriana and her sister Luciana (Mary Werntz) are continually fussing with each other's hair as if they were 10-year-old girls. Brady's decision to emphasize the show's physical slapstick--both Dromios are continually beaten by their masters--makes more sense, but he doesn't push it far enough. These scenes too often resemble a ballet rather than an actual brawl.
Brady doesn't worry about making the twins identical. The two Antipholuses are both played by tall, twentysomething white guys in baggy, black pinstripe suits, but there's no mistaking the beefy, brown-haired Kendall for the slimmer, red-haired Ragan. The two Dromios are closer in appearance; both the thinner Boyer and broader Krawczyk are balding men in servant jackets and black bowler hats. But these differences shouldn't matter as long as the other actors react as if the twins were indistinguishable.
Ragan, as the Ephesus Antipholus, is the best of the bunch; he never lapses into vaudeville banter or dreamy surrealism, but always remains an infuriated husband and businessman who sputters more and more angrily as those around him deny what he knows to be true. Kendall, as the Syracuse Antipholus, is less consistent though he occupies much more stage time. He has some funny scenes, but too often he goes off on some tangent that makes you wonder who his character really is. Both of the Dromios are entertaining, though Boyer is better at sharpening the paradox of obsequious loyalty and angry grievance. After an awkward opening scene, Alvarado and Werntz do good work as the sisters, especially when they show how a righteous anger can melt within a kind caress.
The outdoor setting helps the production. When one is sprawled out on a picnic blanket, with wine and fruit in easy reach, poplar trees towering over the stage, and fireflies blinking before it, one is more willing to appreciate the amusement that this production supplies and to overlook the bigger laughs it misses.
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