It seems fitting that Chicago Shakespeare Theater founder Barbara Gaines has chosen to round out her decades-long tenure as the company's artistic director not with some iconoclastic premiere but with a reprise of her 2008 take on “The Comedy of Errors,” which spotlights actors she's worked with for years and the art and resilience of theater-making itself.
This is not Shakespeare's comedy as you know it, however. Perhaps taking a cue from the Bard's penchant for embedding a play-within-the-play, Gaines and writer Ron West conceived such an elaborate frame for “Errors” that it's really a play in itself, one that West has updated for this production.
The time is 1940, during the height of the London Blitz, and the conceit is that stars of stage and screen who were available have gathered on a sound stage at Shepperton Studios to film “The Comedy of Errors” to cheer up the nation and the brave men in uniform at home and abroad. They have only 36 hours to do it, however.
Not surprisingly, the antics of these actors, a collection of Hollywood types and tropes, quickly overshadow the plot and characters in the Shakespeare play they're filming — with repeated interruptions for arguments and air raids. Even if the opening — with the arrested Egeon (Greg Winkler) explaining the shipwreck that split his family — weren't confusingly presented live but with flickering film-like lighting, keeping track of the many mix ups in Ephesus would be daunting because so much of the play is cut, and the emotional disconnect from what's happening in 1940 is distracting.
A key dispute is between the film's director Dudley Marsh (Ross Lehman), who also is playing Dromio of Syracuse, and Lord Brian Hallifax (Kevin Gudahl), an aristocratic actor in the Olivier mold who thought he was going to play Antipholus of Ephesus but instead is assigned the part of Dromio of Ephesus. He deeply resents being cast as a servant and, in one of the funniest bits, keeps trying to sneak in sections of the Saint Crispin's Day speech from “Henry V,” which happens to be both a famous Olivier role and the first play Gaines staged for Chicago Shakespeare, in 1986 on the roof of the Red Lion Pub. Lehman and Gudahl, both veterans of the 2008 “Errors” have a ball, and in Mieka van der Ploeg's costumes and hair and make-up designer Richard Jarvie's curly blond wigs, it's surprisingly hard to tell their Dromios apart.
Lord Hallifax loses the part of Antipholus of Ephesus to American aviator and singer Phil Sullivan (Dan Chameroy), who doesn't have a clue how to act Shakespeare until he treats the lines like a song, and he really can sing. Portraying his Syracusan counterpart is London actor Emerson Furbelow (Robert Petkoff), who is having an affair with Marsh's wife, diva Veronica Marsh (Susan Moniz), who is playing Adriana, sinned against and shrewish wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. Furbelow's bad breath, apparently noticed by everyone except Veronica, becomes especially vexing to Alice Briggs (Melanie Brezill), who plays Adriana's sister with whom Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love.
Other Gaines stalwarts include William Dick as producer Charles Chittick playing the Second Merchant, Bruce A. Young as the second assistant cameraman playing the Duke and, of course, Winkler as Admiral Bernard Philpot playing Egeon. Ora Jones is cast as Adriana's wardrobe assistant, who takes on the crucial role of the Abbess, but understudy Madison Kauffman played her at the performance I saw.
James Noone's scenic design is a delight, though it doesn't quite conjure up a film studio for me. Credit for the lighting goes to Ken Posner and for sound design and original music to Lindsay Jones, while Joe Kinosian is the music director. Bruce A. Young does double duty as fight choreographer, and some of the fights are very funny.
I can understand why Gaines chose “The Comedy of Errors” as her swan song, but it is not the show of hers I will remember most. Still, it is worth seeing, whether or not you've been following Chicago Shakespeare Theater all these years.
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