Romantic comedy scholars will tell you that Shakespeare’s lighter works lend themselves very well to adaptation—for reference, please consider the twin teen totems of 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. The Bard’s work traditionally doesn’t line up as well with musical comedy, but Shakespeare Theatre Company’s song-filled adaptation of The Comedy of Errors begs audiences to reconsider that preconception.
The idea of turning The Comedy of Errors, one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies and definitely his most farcical, into a musical did not begin with STC Associate Artistic Director Alan Paul. Rodgers and Hart turned the tale of mistaken identity and long-lost relatives into the musical The Boys from Syracuse 80 years ago. Paul’s production keeps Shakespeare’s original language intact and inserts original songs at regular intervals, giving the already zany show some extra oomph.
To briefly describe the zaniness: A young man, Antipholus, leaves his hometown of Syracuse with his loyal servant, Dromio, in search of the identical twin brother he was separated from as a baby. Five years into his quest, he lands in Ephesus, where, unbeknownst to him, his brother, also named Antipholus, lives with his servant Dromio’s identical twin brother, also named Dromio. Confusion abounds, intimate partners are swapped, punishment is threatened, and in roughly an hour and a half from beginning to end, all the conflict is resolved.
A story this manic and tightly paced requires a cast of playful and disciplined actors, and Paul has assembled one here. As Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, Gregory Wooddell and Christian Conn carry much of the action. Their respective Dromios, Carson Elrod and Carter Gill, provide most of the play’s physical comedy.
The supporting cast, a combination of STC regulars paying tribute to retiring artistic director Michael Kahn and game newcomers, push the play over the top. Veanne Cox, dressed like an elegant Mediterranean widow, leads the way as Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife who unknowingly pursues her husband’s twin. Her mix of austerity and lust results in comic moments throughout the evening. Skewing more manic is Sarah Marshall, who plays the local healer, Dr. Pinch, with the zeal of Benny Hinn.
While the main characters stick to the script, Paul has expanded the presence of minor characters in his adaptation. Playing the courtesan, Eleasha Gamble, best known for her work in musicals, gets a jazzy song-and-dance number and the evening’s best costume. (A hearty round of applause for costume designer Gabriel Berry, who has managed to make a porcupine costume into something delightfully smutty.)
Matt Bauman, John Cardenas, and Justin G. Nelson form a Greek chorus of sorts, playing a constantly rotating series of merchants, nuns, and police officers. They duck behind the walls and buildings of James Noone’s set, peek through windows, and change costumes at an astonishing pace (44 times between the three of them, according to STC).
The songs Michael Dansicker composed for this production don’t always land—in particular, the one that opens and closes the show—but a giddy, well executed tap number featuring the three of them reminds the audience why similar numbers are remembered so fondly in classic 20th century musicals.
A quick physical comedy seems like the perfect distraction from these dark times, and yet the Bard has managed to squeeze some heart into the script. The reunion of a family that has been separated for decades feels tender, not forced or cheesy, and the search for connection that runs through the play grounds it in reality. Having D.C. acting legends Nancy Robinette and Ted van Griethuysen play the Antipholi’s parents certainly helps.
“After so long grief, such felicity,” Robinette declares in the play’s final scene. For 100 minutes, that felicity exists within the safe confines of the Lansburgh Theatre.
To Oct. 28 at 450 7th St. NW. $44–$118. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheare.org.