Shakespeare done badly, is painful.
Shakespeare done well, is beautiful.
Shakespeare done by Chicago Shakespeare Theater is iconic.
Barbara Gaines founded CST in 1986, and since then it has grown to be the third-largest theater company in the Midwest. It is an award-winning company that commands the greatest respect in the artistic community.
“The Comedy of Errors” is one of Shakespeare’s funniest plays, and one of his most accessible. You don’t have to be a Shakespearean scholar to have a rousing good time with this classic tale of mistaken identity.
In 2008, Gaines directed what is regarded as a stunning production of “The Comedy of Errors” for CST. Now, 15 years later, to mark her last directorial effort as the theater company’s artistic director, Gaines revisits the tale with a fresh and exciting perspective. The result is magical.
For this production, director Gaines and scribe Ron West go with a variation of the play-within-a-play approach.
Similar to how “Kiss Me, Kate” offers a laugh-filled view of backstage mayhem surrounding a production of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shew,” this fanciful production offers us front-row seats as a 1940s English movie crew tries to piece together a feel-good film adaptation of “The Comedy of Errors” to entertain the troops as part of the war effort.
West is a Second City veteran, and it shows in the scenes he has put together to frame the behind-the-scenes story that involves intrigue, betrayal, heartbreak, lust, love and side-splitting comedy. The scenes would be funny in the hands of most actors, but in the hands of the best Chicago has to offer, they are electric.
Gaines’ cast for this monumental production includes familiar faces from her highly heralded 2008 mounting. This theme of actors reuniting for a project is echoed in the framing scenes West has written.
Dan Chameroy in his CST debut portrays Phil Sullivan, a U.S. crooner cut from the same cloth as Frank Sinatra. He’s in Europe doing his duty for the war effort as a fighter pilot. The director of the film being made manages to get Sullivan reassigned to his company to star in the film. He has no acting experience, but his fame will make for good PR.
Broadway, film and television star Robert Petkoff plays the dashing Emerson Furbelow, a legendary swashbuckler who could hold his own with the likes of Errol Flynn as both an actor and a lover.
In the film being made, Sullivan and Furbelow are cast as two identical twins who have been separated from each other since infancy due to a tragedy at sea. Adding to the confusion, the brothers are both named Antipholus, and each has been raised with a manservant named Dromio, who also are identical twins separated at birth at the same time as their masters.
The two Dromios of the film are played by character Lord Brian Hallifax, one of England’s most celebrated Shakespearean actors, and Dudley Marsh, a modest film star and also the director of the ad hoc movie production.
Everything goes up for grabs when one Antipholus brother and his servant Dromio arrive in Ephesus, where unbeknownst to him, his long-lost brother Antipholus and his servant Dromio live. What transpires next is a cavalcade of mistaken identities.
Adding to the chaos is the fact that the film director’s wife, Veronica, is playing Adriana, the wife of one of the two Antipholus brothers, but off-screen is also having an affair with the actor playing Antipholus of Syracuse.
The newly scripted material embraces the bawdy humor and slapstick antics of Shakespeare’s actual text. Under Gaines’ impeccable direction, the two blend seamlessly. Hilarity ensues.
Chameroy is a striking leading man, with a hypnotic charisma. Petkoff rivals Kevin Kline in charm, comedic timing and acting brilliance. Together, they are a thorough delight. The fact that the two identical brothers are nearly half a foot different in height is hilarious.
As Lord Hallifax, Kevin Gudahl demonstrates what it takes to be a truly great actor. His performance is a masterclass in technique.
As Dudley Marsh, Ross Lehman is comedy gold, while letting true heart and sensitivity shine through, as well. He does so much with the words he is given to speak, and even more without.
Susan Moniz quickly is becoming one of my favorite actresses. She is absolutely divine as Veronica Marsh and her counterpart Adriana, offering a character that chews the scenery when necessary, but is also reserved and reflective when the moment calls for it. Moniz is a genius at finding the humor in both situations of seduction and rage.
As one might expect with a company as revered as CST, every member of the cast offers touches of brilliance. Standouts among the company include Bruce A. Young, Melanie Brezill, Adia Bell and Breon Arzell. Even the understudies are impeccable, as exemplified by Madison Kauffman in the role of Veronica’s sister Doris on the night being reviewed.
Oftentimes, not enough credit goes to the casting director. Artistic associate Bob Mason has done an excellent job in that capacity.
Scenic design by James Noone, costumes by Mieka Van Der Ploeg, lighting design by Ken Posner, and sound design by Lindsay Jones are all awesomely inventive. I’m particularly a fan of Posner’s ability to make early scenes look like they are straight out of a 1940s movie. Jones’ original compositions for the play demonstrate why she has a Tony nomination for Best Score.
Hair and makeup by Richard Jarvie are award worthy. The wigs alone are amazing.
Based on the finished product that dances across the Chicago Shakespeare Theater stage, verse coach Larry Yando, dialect coach Kathy Logelin, and dramaturg Martine Green-Rogers all have excelled in their positions.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “The Comedy of Errors” will put a smile on your face for a week, maybe a month. It is everything you could ask for: classic text, fresh original material, masterful direction and amazing performances.
(Show has a run time of two hours, 40 minutes in the 500-seat, courtyard-style theater.)
• Rikki Lee Travolta is an award-winning creative talent who has appeared throughout the country as a theatrical headliner, as well as in film and television. Visit www.RikkiLeeTravolta.com.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “The Comedy of Errors”
WHERE: Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago
WHEN: Wednesdays through Sundays, plus some Tuesdays, through April 16
INFORMATION: www.ChicagoShakes.com, 312-595-5600