Where to begin with the peculiarly uproarious glories of Timothy Tushingham’s The Comedy of Errors? (Yes, I know the play is generally thought to be Shakespeare’s; I’ll get to that later.) Tushingham, you see, manages the not-terribly-venerable Worcestershire Mask and Wig Society, a saucy little troupe that proudly claims a 250-year production history (albeit with gaps accounting for 208 of those years), and he is “entirely chuffed” to be at the Folger to kick off a tour of a commedia dell’arte-inspired, mask-and-finger-puppet-enhanced, “Edwardian-ish/British-Mod-Rocker-ish” mounting of the Bard’s tale of mismatched twins. (I did say it was peculiar, right?) You may be under the impression that Comedy of Errors is a farce of mistaken identity, but Tushingham observes solemnly that this production will be “about human beings being human beings in the best way they know how.” And after a brief documentary makes clear that no two members of his cast are remotely on the same page about how to communicate that notion, they launch into the play proper.
Or improper. Or barely proper. Hey, it’s at least the Bard’s. (And that’s the uproarious part.) Tushingham and his WMWS troupe, you’ll have gathered by this time, are an invention—the creation of director Aaron Posner, whose previous Folger stints have included a Macbeth co-directed by the magician Teller, and an oddball confection titled Orestes, A Tragic Romp. This time he’s employing a framing device that allows him to excuse pretty much any liberty he takes with the play, so he takes plenty.
In fact, though you’d think a comedy with a pair of identical twins named Antipholus, another pair named Dromio, and a plot widely regarded as among the most convolutedly farcical in dramatic literature wouldn’t need a lot of add-ons, Posner and his cast manage to get a high percentage of the evening’s laughs with non-textual jests. Rachel Zampelli creates a hilariously dilatory slattern out of little more than batted eyelashes and come-hither looks. There’s a delirious mirrored physicality to the brothers-playing-brothers act Nathan Keepers and Darius Pierce keep up as mismatched Dromios all evening. And timing—from the landing of punchlines to the scene change from indoors to outdoors accomplished entirely with synchronized door slams—is pretty astonishing throughout. It helps that Tony Cisek has provided 11 doors for slamming (and getting stuck in) within a colorful, mock-Victorian setting that looks a bit like the interior of the Smithsonian Castle; that musician Jesse Terrill is on hand to punctuate jokes with drumrolls and xylophone riffs; and that Aaron Cromie’s arresting masks—some mostly foreheads, others seemingly all cheeks and ears—enhance both the doubling of actors and the doubleness of twins. Other embellishments include lines that are less than strictly Shakespearean (“Dromio, Dromio, wherefore art thou, Dromio”), and not one but two terrific gags about that pair (more twins!) of mid-stage columns that have long been the bane of Folger Theatre designers.