Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Comedy of Errors
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Review by Christine M. Malcom

Also see Christine's recent review of Mia: Where Have All the Young Girls Gone?

Ross Lehman and Cast
Photo by Liz Lauren
After thirty-seven years, Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Barbara Gaines is stepping down as artistic director. For her final production, Gaines conceived and directs a version of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors that is smartly impressionistic, gorgeous to look at, riotously funny, and in its framing story, penned by Ron West, heartfelt and–probably appropriately–just a little weary.

The show opens on a flickering movie screen with a scaffold just barely downstage right and a scattering of unoccupied canvas director's chairs out on the thrust, facing the screen. A title card announces the play as a watery, Golden Age score plays in the background. Eventually, a still-flickering light comes up on the scaffold where Egeon learns from the Duke of Ephesus that he is condemned to death. As the scene ends, a voice from the dark of the audience calls out, applauding the cut of the film's dailies, and thus the conceit is established.

The year is 1940. A well-regarded yet perhaps past his prime director has reunited the cast of a successful swashbuckling epic with the goal of cobbling together a film adaptation of the Bard's comedy to cheer the British troops. Dudley Marsh (Ross Lehman) is short on time, cameras, crew, actors, fidelity from his wife and leading lady, and certainly on patience, yet he remains committed to the mission: getting the film in the can in thirty-six hours, Blitz notwithstanding.

In using this framing device, Gaines crafts a familiar, resonant love letter to groups of creatives who grow up, growth with, and grow past one another. Dudley's relationship with Lord Brian Halifax (Kevin Gudahl), the Dromio of Ephesus to his own Dromio of Syracuse, is thorny to the point of traumatizing, yet still fundamentally fond, resting on a bedrock of mutual respect. His brass-tacks practicality in accepting not just his wife's lover as Antipholus of Syracuse, but an eleventh-hour, wholly unqualified American crooner as Antipholus of Ephesus efficiently communicates both how long he's been at this game and why he's lasted. It's inside baseball for performers at its best, though the framing story is not without its flaws.

It's clear that, as a director, Gaines wants us to care about the "real-life" cast and crew, but the show doesn't always spend the time necessary to accomplish this. Lord Halifax, for example, is revealed to be gay in an ill-tempered insult from Dudley, and the issue is raised again near the end of the show to no particularly obvious purpose. Monty (played at the performance I attended by Michael E. Martin), the second assistant camera who has been pressed into service as the Duke, is waiting on word of his own two sons who are serving aboard a vessel that has been attacked by the Germans. Near the end of the play, he and his daughter Fanny (Adia Bell), who serves as a make-up assistant even though she is also studying to be a doctor, receive word that they have been rescued. It's appropriate to the "comedy within a comedy," but this and a few other threads are a little too heavy to really sell as simple reflections of Shakespeare's text.

In terms of the visuals, the production is exceptional, even for a company of CST's budget and talent. The opening scene establishes that the film is black and white, and the costumes and sets are appropriately flashy enough to communicate the light-hearted comedy within the confines of this. James Noone's scenic design wisely alludes to the actors' private dressing rooms with just a pair of doors and a few steps leading into them upstage right. Otherwise, a table, the director's chairs with the names of the cast and crew stenciled on them, and two cameras serve to remind us that we're on a soundstage. The sets for the film are equally two-dimensional and obviously painted.

Mieka Van Der Ploeg's costumes perfectly complement the beach-vibe colors of the scenic design. The two Dromios are in sky blue shorts with pale lime slip-on shoes, sky blue socks, and hilariously, inexplicably matching button-down club shirts. Likewise, our physically mismatched Antipholi (Dan Chameroy as the American Phil Sullivan and Antipholus of Ephesus, Robert Petkoff as Emerson Furbelow and Antipholus of Syracuse) are in cream-colored, double-breasted suits with high-waisted, pleated pants, loud teal shirts, and fat ties underneath, complete with yellow braces. The Abbess (Ora Jones, who also plays Doris the wardrobe assistant) and Egeon (Matt Miles at this performance, who also plays Admiral Philpot) are equally inexplicably in roughly place and period-appropriate costumes, and the disconnect matters not at all. It all serves to remind us that there's a war on and everyone is still (intermittently) determined to put on a show.

In terms of look and feel, the sound design by Lindsay Jones has to capture not only the desperately upbeat 1940s feel of the set, but also the regular and necessary reminders that the Germans are almost literally knocking at the door. The songs that suggest the movie's soundtrack recording are lovely and beautifully executed. Ken Posner's lighting design also deftly and non-intrusively guides the attention of the audience throughout. And finally, Richard Jarvie's hair and make-up design contributes exquisitely to the comedy, but also helps to shepherd the audience from time to time and place to place.

Lehman and Gudahl are the focal points of both shows, and it's a joy to watch them play off one another as Dudley and Lord Brian, respectively. But the real masterpiece they create in collaboration is their performances as the dueling Dromios and as a collective homage to the great talents of the silent era and the golden age of film.

Within the Comedy, the Antipholi and their lady loves are the stars, and in the framing story the actors turn in stellar supporting performances. The script hangs a lantern on the face that Chameroy and Petkoff look nothing alike, and as their 1940s characters, the two map out quite different character spaces–and yet their performances and the direction leaves the audience honestly and entertainingly confusing the two lost sons of Egeon. As Veronica Marsh/Adriana, Susan Moniz provides both wonderful screwball comedy and just enough melodrama to make the audience invest in the dissolution of Veronica's marriage to Dudley. As Alice Boggs/Luciana, Melanie Brezill is equally funny and charming enough that the audience is left wishing for more time with both characters.

The supporting cast is no less strong. Lillian Castillo is amazing as Marian, the script supervisor and as the Courtesan. Like Brezill, Breon Arzell leaves the audience clamoring to know more about David Pickles, director of photography, even as it enjoys the flair that his Angelo contributes to the film. And Steve McDonagh is simply unforgettable as both Cyril the properties manager and as Nell.

The Comedy of Errors runs through April 23, 2023, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater, 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please call 312-595-5600 or visit