By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; C01
A funny thing happened in the play at the Folger. To be completely accurate, many funny things happen in director Aaron Posner's dandy handling of "The Comedy of Errors," Shakespeare's manic farce of inadvertent identity theft.
Any play advertising the "comedy" so boldly immediately raises the threat level to an ensemble: Get a laugh or get thee gone! With this production, Posner has made a virtue of confusion and, while implementing his usual, inventively personal take, he's remained true to the classically antic spirit of "The Comedy of Errors." And that means, yes, the cast gets those requisite laughs.
To cement the play's most urgent comic necessity - the belief that two pairs of actors can portray two sets of identical twins - Posner enlists the deft theatrical caricaturist Aaron Cromie. He creates masks for the male performers, with exaggerated cheeks, noses and ears, that at once make the twins credible and highlight eccentric aspects of their personalities.
The plot of "The Comedy of Errors" is merely meant to serve the gods of nuttiness and mayhem. No need to go into detail here, except to note that early-in-life disaster separated the higher-born pair, Antipholus of Syracuse (Darragh Kennan) and Antipholus of Ephesus (Bruce Nelson), as well as the pair who become each of their go-fers, Dromio of Syracuse (Nathan Keepers) and Dromio of Ephesus (Darius Pierce). A merry mashup occurs after the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio arrive in Ephesus, where the natives, of course, mistake them for their Antipholus and Dromio.
You with me? Good.
But Posner isn't content with that simple degree of mischief. He creates a new prologue for "The Comedy of Errors" based on the idea that the play is being performed by a smugly constipated English troupe called the Worcestershire Mask and Wig Society, run by the smarmy Timothy Tushingham (also played by Nelson). Welcoming us to the show, Nelson's Tushingham, in modern street clothes, introduces some clips from a promotional documentary about the Mask and Wig Society that presents its members as cousins to the ridiculous types in Christopher Guest's hilarious community-theater mockumentary of 1996, "Waiting for Guffman."
The film is a little gem, filled with the sort of deadpan comments of the actors that are supposed to illuminate their self-aggrandizing delusions. But while the "society's" mission helps to explain Posner's use of the masks, the device provokes a question: Is the movie itself an act of sly misdirection?
Here's the slightly ill-fitting dimension. The prologue sets up the Mask and Wig Society as a joke. (One of the society's members is quoted as fatuously saying, for instance, that "The Comedy of Errors" is about "human beings being human beings the best way they know how.") The expectation is that what follows on the stage will be total ineptitude, a calamitous evening akin to the chaos in Michael Frayn's farce-within-a-farce, "Noises Off."
What we get instead is comedy of a polished order, enacted by a cast divinely assembled by Posner. Among those executing truly delightful turns are the comically graceful Keepers as Dromio of Syracuse; Kennan, portraying a lovably clueless Antipholus of Syracuse; and Rachel Zampelli, transforming the throwaway part of the town prostitute into a delicious ditz. None of these portrayals can be anticipated in the aftermath of the bloviating documentary, so the concern arises: Is it too clever by half? Though audiences get a kick out of it, I'd say it probably doesn't belong as the lead-in to a play this successful.
The successes extend to Tony Cisek's farce-appropriate set of red, orange, green and yellow doors. (Tushingham tells us the setting is supposed to look not Edwardian, but "Edwardian-ish.") Kate Turner-Walker has a grand old time with the costumes, especially the clash-conscious couture for the excitable ladies of Syracuse, Adriana and Luciana (the excellent Suzanne O'Donnell and Erin Weaver).
Nelson and Pierce prove to be winning counterpoints to Kennan and Keepers; across the board, there's a pleasing symbiosis in the efforts of this cast between the verbal jousts and the physical gags. And Jesse Terrill's accompaniment on viola and percussion contributes yet another layer of wit.
Posner has shown in many of his Folger Theatre treatments of Shakespeare - his tantalizingly magical "Macbeth" in 2008, his darkly resonant "Measure for Measure" in 2006 - that he's able to find meaningfully intellectual communion with the plays and entertainingly isolate an essence of style and sensibility for each.
Which prompts a bit of musing. Why hasn't the Shakespeare Theatre Company given this guy a shot? Not to dilute a winning formula; Posner's association with the Folger has paid off many a time. It would simply be interesting to see what this director did with Elizabethan drama on a larger scale and, presumably, even more money in the production till.
The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; lighting, Dan Covey; original music, Jesse Terrill; sound, Nick Kourtides; masks and puppets, Aaron Cromie; dramaturg, Michele Osherow. With Stephen D'Ambrose, Catherine Flye, Matthew R. Wilson. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through March 6 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu/theatre.