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Rousuck Review: "The Comedy Of Errors" At Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

Teresa Castracane

Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s production of “The Comedy of Errors".

The comedy in Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” stems from two pairs of identical twins – identical twin servants and their identical twin masters. The servants can’t tell the masters apart; the masters can’t tell the servants apart – and neither can anyone else.

This is where Scott Alan Small, director of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s production, inserts some fun of his own – a sight gag. In the roles of the twin servants, he has cast a slender woman, Kelsey Painter -- in drag -- and a rotund man, Bobby Henneberg. Talented Kelsey Painter dashes frantically around Chesapeake’s outdoor performance space -- the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City. She even turns cartwheels on stage. Bobby Henneberg lumbers about jovially; when he tries to do cartwheels, he just sort of rolls around.

Watching the other characters repeatedly mix up this dissimilar twosome is the best new joke in director Small’s uneven production – a production that tries too much too hard, and often at the expense of genuine feeling. Because make no mistake, “The Comedy of Errors” may be an early Shakespearean comedy, but there’s a well of emotion underlying it.

A husband and one of his twin infant sons have been separated from his wife and other twin, in a shipwreck. The husband has raised the one twin in Syracuse, unaware that his wife and the other twin are alive and in Ephesus. To further complicate matters, the Syracusan master and servant have taken the names of their lost brothers, Antipholus and Dromio. Antipholus of Syracuse and his father are so desperate to find their lost family, they’ve risked their lives to come to Ephesus. The Duke of Ephesus, played by Kate Forton, lays down the law at the top of the play. I’m not sure why the director cast a woman in the male role of the Duke.

It’s one of a raft of things – some comical, some inexplicable – tossed into a production lacking a unifying vision. For almost every clever new touch, there’s another that doesn’t work and detracts. The Kinks’ “Lola,” with the lyric, “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls,” works because of the added cross-dressing. But why is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” hummed in the opening scene with the Duke? Tall, gruff Jeff Miller is amusing as a grimy, hulking kitchen wench who falls in love with Dromio of Syracuse. But it makes no sense to see the same actor, cast against gender and decked out in a turquoise beehive wig, as the devout, broken-hearted mother of the Antipholus twins.

“The Comedy of Errors” can withstand all sorts of embellishments. I’ve seen everyone from Charlie Chaplin to a pink llama show up on stage. But there’s a difference between tweaking the humor and throwing everything at the script to see what will stick -- from a Snickers commercial to a game of tug-of-war. Chesapeake Shakespeare’s production has its moments, but not enough ends up sticking.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.