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Mistaken Identity at Its Finest in The Comedy of Errors

Shakespeare Theatre Company modernizes a classic.

Gregory Wooddell (Antipholus of Syracuse) and Veanne Cox (Adriana) in The Comedy of Errors, directed by Alan Paul, at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
(© Scott Suchman)

The Comedy of Errors, one of Shakespeare's funniest plays and his shortest, is receiving a lively production at Shakespeare Theatre Company. A remake of a Roman comedy by Plautus, the play's earthy, low-comedy instincts remain intact while its rougher edges are softened by Shakespeare's romantic spirit. And its improbable plot shows off Shakespeare's abiding love of the ridiculous.

This Comedy of Errors is set in modern-day Greece and includes a musical interlude by composer-lyricist Michael Dansicker. The cast enters singing their heartfelt praise of living life to the fullest, then executes an energetic Greek line dance (effective choreography by Karma Camp) before switching to Shakespeare's text.

The play follows the aged Egeon, a merchant from Syracuse, who tells the Duke of Ephesus a story about how, 33 years earlier, he was caught in a storm at sea with his wife, Amelia; his identical twin sons, both named Antipholus; and their identical twin servants, both named Dromio. The raging tempest resulted in a shipwreck and Amelia, one son, and one servant were lost.

Now, years later, Egeon has gone in search of Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, who left Syracuse in search of their brothers. The rest of the piece plays out as an oversize case of mistaken identity when both sets of brothers unknowingly encounter the other at different times and chaos ensues.

Gregory Wooddell performs as Antipholus of Syracuse and Christian Conn appears as Antipholus of Ephesus. Both Wooddell and Conn are seasoned comedians and manage to create and sustain the chaos that rules in Ephesus until the final scene of the play. Carson Elrod and Carter Gill take on the boisterous roles of Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, respectively. A lot of the issues of mistaken identity are seen through their eyes, and Elrod and Gill are particularly good at portraying exasperation and desperation.

Ted van Griethuysen is tender and mournful as the bereft Egeon, who has looked for his lost family members for so long. Veanne Cox steals the show as Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. Her Adriana is a melodramatic diva, her jealousy of an imagined rival hilariously exaggerated. Folami Williams is the polar opposite of Cox as the quiet, retiring Luciana, Adriana's sister. Particularly with her powerful singing, Eleasha Gamble lights up the role of the Courtesan. Nancy Robinette appears at the end of the play as the Abbess who resolves all mysteries.

Director Alan Paul keeps the momentum going breezily, from the first praise of existence to the last. Dansicker's sporadic music, which is bell-like and lilting, extends and doesn't overwhelm the story. Scenic designer James Noone builds three structures on the Lansburgh Theatre stage, each one identified with signs: "Police," "Doctor," "Zorba's Seafood," and so on. The central structure turns to allow for more interior spaces, like Antipholus of Ephesus's home. Costume designer Gabriel Berry dresses both Antipholuses in identical white slacks and jackets, while the two Dromios wear white, pleated skirts, tufted black slippers, and the traditional red turbans worn by Greek soldiers. Adriana is given a close-fitting black dress, while Luciana wears white. The Courtesan is costumed in an elegant dress and mink coat, and a sequined dress and impressive headdress of quills when she performs.

In this comedy, Shakespeare offers early sketches of lives unfulfilled and of longing for fellowship and love that he eventually drew as detailed portraits in later plays. Here, while he does have fun with the lunacy of two sets of same-named twins, he is also thinking poetically — and seriously — about the emotional needs of his characters. Fortunately, this Shakespeare Theatre Company production takes the trouble to bring out both the light and the darkness in this play.