Chicago Shakespeare’s latest production of The Comedy of Errors, directed with verve and aplomb by theatre founder Barbara Gaines, marks her last play as artistic director. Gaines is going out on top with this wonderfully funny and surprisingly soulful show (her 60th as director). It’s a fond remount of her 2008 production, and one which displays her gift for showcasing the continued relevance, not just the timelessness, of the Bard’s work.
The production, which opened Thursday, is set in the early days of World War II, during the Blitz, when London was in the Luftwaffe’s bomb sights night after bone-rattling night and America was standing on the sidelines. We are transported to Shepperton Studios, where no-nonsense (ok, some nonsense) director Dudley Marsh (a delightfully droll Ross Lehman) has assembled a ragtag cast and crew to film The Comedy of Errors for the morale and enjoyment of the troops. These additional scenes–which situate the original play as the show within the show as it is filmed–were written with spot-on comic precision by Ron West.
This is a tough show for a reviewer to sum up from an acting perspective. There are so many standout turns that capturing them all is like trying to chase down every pigeon at the park. This ensemble fires on all cylinders with nary a weak spot in evidence.
The film’s first hook is that it reunites the stars of a popular swashbuckler many years later, including Marsh; his wife, Veronica (played with an antic edge by Susan Moniz); the ultimately lovable Lord Brian Hallifax (Kevin Gudahl, evoking a gone-to-seed Michael York); and Emerson Furbelow (Robert Petkoff), a fading star typecast as a swordsman and reviled on set for his vile breath). The second hook comes in the dashing form of Yank fighter pilot Phil Sullivan (Dan Chameroy) who’s on loan to the RAF and also happens to be a crooner of international fame. The third hook(!) comes in the oddball guise of comedian Eddie Philpot (Bill Larkin), beloved for his bawdy songs and fart jokes. Watching Marsh somehow pull this cast of wildly divergent performers into a merry band of brothers is one of the show’s many great delights.
The Comedy of Errors we see filmed between bombing raids, secret sorrows and illicit affairs is a delicious comedic smorgasbord. The homages to Lucille Ball (watch Moniz eat her feelings as Adriana), Harpo Marx (conjured by the wigs and manic expressions of Lehman and Gudahl playing the twin Dromios) and The Blues Brothers (Ora Jones makes a hilarious entrance as the Abbess that includes doors swinging open via some hidden higher power) suggest that the chain of comedy stretching from Shakespeare to modern times remains unbroken.
Between the many, many laughs, we also find out Chameroy is a credible crooner, that it’s important to laugh even in the most stressful circumstances, and that we create our own tragicomic moments with errors of the heart.
This Comedy of Errors is bursting with big laughs and characters that transcend their stereotypic roots against all odds. You won’t want to miss it. But Chicago will definitely miss Gaines’ sure hand at Shakes. Hopefully, she has a few more fun tricks up her sleeve for us.
The Comedy of Errors runs through April 16 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Liz Lauren