The Z-movie nonsense that director Matt Johnson packaged in and around The Comedy of Errors at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) is little if any more nonsensical than Mr. William Shakespeare’s own loopy script. That’s good news.
Johnson’s spaceships, aliens, tinfoil hats (among other bizarre costumes), zany sound and light effects combine with first-rate farcing from all hands to serve Willie’s original silliness quite well. The interpolations undergird as they overlay, enhance as they satirize, do zero harm and frequently — as in a shadow play routine near the top of the show — clarify the needed but knotty back-story.
Also doing no harm and adding considerable merriment is a sinister Man In Black (Kris Stoker) with Mr. Moto glasses, a light-up coffee mug and a gong. He serves the useful purpose of ringmaster. You see, these identical twins (both named Antipholus) and their identical twin servants (both named Dromio) were shipwrecked and separated as infants — one of each pair fetching up in Ephesus, the other in Syracuse. Maybe that’s Planet Ephesus and Planet Syracuse. Mom and Pop get separated as well, with further comic complications.
The play begins (and ends) one fine summer day when Antipholus of Syracuse (now 23) and his Dromio arrive as tourists in Ephesus.
Do you need to ask whether the visitors are dressed identically with their Ephesian twins? No. Nor should you doubt that all four will spend the next two hours slap-sticking their way through one mistaken identity caper after another.
Even the twin masters and twin servants can’t discern which serves or is served by whom. But we can. Therein lies the mainspring of Shakespeare’s deathless farce. We in the audience can distinguish between Justin McCombs (Antipholus of Syracuse) and his Dromio, Christopher Guthrie and Rob Jansen (A. of E.) and his Dromio, Billy Chace. We know who is being mistaken for whom by whom. We can foresee the mistakes, revel in them and savor the slapstick outcomes even as they endure them.
It doesn’t hurt that the two pairs of performers have more or less twinned their performances, matching stance, attitude and delivery each to the other as much as costumer Heidi Jo Scheimer and wig master James Geier have twinned the performers’ appearances.
The other mainspring of the success of this production is the master farcing delivered by all 13 players — from the twins right down to the company’s master carpenter Brook Stetler, who hammers down some supporting roles. CSC regulars understand that the trick of farce is to play it seriously, with the straightest of straight faces. To a man and a woman, they play inside their roles no matter how silly. They never glance aside, never laugh at the jokes they’re making, never even realize that jokes are being made.
That’s the trick, and they’ve mastered it, most probably led there by director Johnson. Besides those mentioned already, the cast includes Anne Marie Carroll, Sara Clark, Jeremy Dubin, Sherman Fracher, Jim Hopkins, Kelly Mengelkoch and Josh Stamoolis.
The Comedy of Errors might be early, youthful Shakespeare, but it’s still Shakespeare, which means it’s about splendid language as much as farce. And here’s the true marvel of this CSC entertainment: For all its spaceships, flying nuns and gorillas (yes, there’s a gorilla), the language smiles through, intact, respected and as sweet and thrilling as it should be.
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