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Antipholus and Dromio hail from Southern Italy, if I remember, not from Little Italy, and something tells me Shakespeare might have had issues with the scansion of “Shut thy piehole,” but these are quibbles for purists: Joe Banno takes many suchlike liberties with scene and script in the Comedy of Errors that opened this past weekend at the Folger Theatre, and the payoff is an exuberantly physical entertainment with a bigger than usual set of stugots.
The director, who (all together now) is also the Washington City Paper’s opera critic, comes heavy to this goofiest of Shakespearean stories, moving the mistaken-identity action to Tony Soprano territory and excavating all kinds of new fun from between the lines. (Who remembered that the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus was named Adriana? You will, when you see how high the Jersey barrier of her hair is.) Rhymes get schemed unapologetically here, when necessary: Michael Russotto’s hapless Egeon spends the opening scene explaining that he’s trespassed on the forbidden turf of Ephesus accidentally, looking for the son and the servant who’ve left home looking for their long-lost twins—which is how it always goes, except that this Egeon sits, handcuffed and quivering, at a trattoria table with Bill Hamlin’s godfatherish Duke, who’s busy with a bowl of linguine. Russotto’s clever business with the breadsticks and the oil-and-vinegar cruets is just one helpful gloss on the backstory-heavy monologue: When Egeon’s language gets impenetrably baroque, Banno has a trio of wiseguy waiters clarify with decidedly non-Shakespearean interjections.
Delightfully enough, though, a goodly number of the production’s jokes turn out to be thoroughly grounded in the text. (Praise be to Cam Magee, thou wise and witty dramaturg.) “They say this town is full of cozenage,” worries the Syracusan Antipholus (an agreeably out-of-water Clinton Brandhagen) when he turns up, glancing anxiously at the hookers and the homies—and what city has ever terrified a wallet-watching tourist like New York? When Shakespeare requires his philandering twin’s put-upon spouse (a deliciously nasal Marni Penning) to grouse at length about her dysfunctional relationship, Banno provides a copy of Cosmo for consolation; when the same pink-pantsuited domestic goddess breaks a nail in a fit of pique, you can bet her next line will be a rueful reflection on the demise of a “jewel best enameled.” The fart jokes, the crotch grabs, the bathroom catfight with the dental floss—they all make perfect sense in context. Ya gotta love Shakespeare: He knew how to court the cheap seats.
So do Banno and his cast, especially Eric Sutton, who plays both Dromios in what amounts to a RICO-worthy series of brash spotlight-heists. Costumer Kathleen Geldard helps distinguish the one from the other with a T-shirt swap, but even if she hadn’t, Sutton has created a distinct and distinctly physical characterization for each. Dromio E. is a slouching, strutting, basketball-pounding b-boy-wannabe with his pants halfway to his ankles, whereas his Syracusan twin moves through life with a puppyish bounce and a doofus grin—he’s a chortling, gum-smacking butthead with a digicam all but grafted to his hand. (Again, smart stuff: A couple of instant-replay jokes are there in the text, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be jokes without the hardware.) The cast is pretty uniformly hilarious—KenYatta Rogers and Erika Sheffer, especially, must not pass unacknowledged—but the show is Sutton’s, and not just because of that inspired train wreck of a stand-up routine he and Banno make out of one particularly lowbrow string of jokes. It often plays like a tiresome misogynist detour; here, the joke is on Dromio as much as the poor woman he’s mocking.
Tony Cisek’s brutal bricks-and-steel set convincingly establishes the urban streetscape of the world Banno has chosen for his story, and its myriad doors and windows help make a shorthand sense of the play’s public-private dualities. Banno keeps the comedy bright and brisk, choreographing the characters’ farcical comings and goings so tightly they might as well be moving to a backbeat. (Wait, they are: The deft onstage fooling of musician Scott Burgess represents a considerable portion of the production’s thoroughly crass charm.) Thank goodness, though, the slapstick never becomes too much or too broad—a real risk in this chronicle of ridiculous coincidence, which often degenerates into strenuous, unfunny clowning—and things wrap up just in time, with Magee’s chain-smoking abbess whipping off her habit to reveal both a Gucci ensemble and the last missing piece of the mistaken-identity puzzle.
One quibble: Your guess is as good as mine about the handful of Romeo and Juliet references. (Is Banno, concerned that his Comedy might seem too fluffy and physical, trying to underscore the subplot about the soul connection Antipholus S. finds in his twin’s wife’s sister?) It doesn’t matter, I suppose: The asides are few and fleet enough not to seem intrusive, and like the whole business, they’re delivered with a swagger and a sweetness that’s positively irresistible. Far as I’m concerned, Banno and his Folger compatriots bring this Comedy of Errors off without a single mistake. CP