Life can get far too serious sometimes. So can theater. Whatever happened to pratfalls? How about seeing a guy get a wet willy? Who doesn’t love a clown?
If you’re at all down lately, The Comedy of Errors at the Folger Theatre will perk you right up. It’s full of the childish pleasures of old-fashioned clowning and mercifully uncomplicated (apart from Shakespeare’s pesky plot concerning two sets of identical twins, of course!). I actually debated writing a review that would consist of just three words: “Sweet. Simple. Good.”
The first thing you notice upon entering the theater is Tony Cisek’s gorgeous set, like the waiting hall of a Victorian train station seen through the eyes of a passenger on the Yellow Submarine. Its antic colors instantly telegraph that you’re in the circus world of comedy, and thankfully, that’s just what we need. Next up is director Aaron Posner’s framing device – the presentation by British director Timothy Tushingham (Bruce Nelson) of a rough-cut documentary on his dysfunctional players, the Worcestershire Mask & Wig Society, earnestly touring the States. This preamble doesn’t really do much other than put you in the proper frame of mind to laugh, and to accept the British accents and anachronisms the actors use throughout the rest of the production.
But it’s sweet, and funny, and again – isn’t that what you need right now? I’m tired of being jaded. I enjoyed my time in Ephesus, where everyone knows your name but has no idea exactly who you really are… Once the framing lulls you into a state more conducive to laughter, finger puppets help tell the story of poor Egeon of Syracuse – a husband in search of his wife, a father in search of his sons. Stephen d’Ambrose is as woeful here as the production gets, as he details how he lost not only his wife and two sons, identical twins, but their two servants as well. Oh, those servants are also identical twins. No chance for mayhem here! It helps that all the men wear nicely matched Commedia dell’Arte masks. The women are all unmasked, which I suppose is because they are not hiding their true selves (except that one of them is. confused theme? perhaps).
Antipholus (Darragh Kennan) and his servant Dromio (Nathan Keepers) of Syracuse are mystified by their reception in Ephesus, where they are strangers but everyone knows their names. It appears Antipholus even has a wife, the shrewish Adriana (a harried and hysterical Suzanne O’Donnell), which is unfortunate as he’s instantly attracted to her sister, the dreamy Luciana (Erin Weaver, with perfect comedic timing). Dromio finds he has bigger problems, a lot bigger, as he runs from a kitchen wench who seems to know every intimate inch of him.
Antipholus (Bruce Nelson) and his servant Dromio (Darius Pierce) of Ephesus are mystified by the sudden insanity of everyone around them, as the master’s instructions to the servant are constantly miscommunicated, money and presents to a sexy courtesan (Rachel Zampelli, melting the audience in her mouth) go missing, and they are locked out of home. Eventually, they get arrested.
It’s a bad day for them, which makes for a truly funny night out for us. Somehow neither set figures out that the crazy turn-of-events might be caused by their long-lost identical twins appearing in the same town and being mistaken for the other, but don’t you dare spoil this plot with your logical objections! As the clowns bound about stage, banging into walls and dead-end doors, a violinist plays whimsically. It’s Jesse Terrill providing the original music, and somehow his presence adds to that sense of simple pleasure that permeates the entire production. The ensemble’s complete commitment to physical and vocal comedy is a delight, with special kudos to the four actors playing the twins. I actually found my disbelief suspended and saw Keepers and Pierce as twins, despite their height difference, so perfectly did their frazzled clowns mirror each other.
Sure, you could stage The Comedy of Errors by going deep into the realms of identity, exploring what happens in the psychological forest where you meet your doppelganger and steal his wife. But sometimes, you just want to see a guy walk into a column. Or get a wet willy. Again, and again.
The Comedy of Errors plays at the Folger Theatre through March 6. Located at the Folger Shakespeare Library at 201 East Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC 20003. Closest Metro stop: Capitol South (Orange/Blue lines). For more information call 202.675.0342.