Come and meet those dancing feet. They fall right into step -- to the strains of, yes, "42nd Street" -- with various other madcap concoctions in the mischievously cockeyed "The Comedy of Errors" that opened last night at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Mind you, the seemingly out-of-nowhere soft-shoe, performed by the sundry citizens of sunny Ephesus, does not occur until Act 2, when Douglas C. Wager's perspective-tweaking production finally finds its footing. "The Comedy of Errors," one of Shakespeare's earliest (and shortest) plays, is a one-joke exercise in mistaken identity, and more than a little tedious early on, in the way that farces that have overly transparent complications tend to be.
But Wager, formerly artistic director of Arena Stage, knows exactly what he needs to do here: Go Shakespeare's shenanigans one (or two or three) better. To wit, this daffy Turkish taffy of a production, enchanting to gaze upon thanks to set and costume designer Zack Brown, is end-loaded with ever sillier gags and cameos. It wouldn't be sporting to describe them too explicitly, so let's just say that the director's playful art-and-film-world inspirations range from the melted imagery of Salvador Dali's paintings to the reality-bending techniques in Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo."
Among the inspired elements, you can count, too, the casting of inordinately talented Daniel Breaker as Dromio of Syracuse, one of the twins in a play that has two sets of them. With the expressive eyes of a silent-movie clown, and an instinct for comedy that stretches all the way down into his toes, Breaker -- who's emerging as a Shakespeare company star -- excavates laughs from some of the piece's least promising rubble. Whether making his entrances through a secret slit in a topiary or evoking Dromio's inexorable attraction to a courtesan of Amazonian proportions, the actor exhibits a physical grace that matches his facility for verse.
The play desperately needs actors of Breaker's acumen. The mechanical mishaps in "The Comedy of Errors" -- its source is Roman farce -- lack the whimsy of Shakespeare's later comedies, and apart from Egeon (Ralph Cosham), the merchant from Syracuse condemned to die in Ephesus, there's not a character for whom the story carries any emotional weight. This is partly why an audience perks up every time Wager tosses in another extraneous bit of business: the deeply superficial plot and characters of "The Comedy of Errors" cry out for rousing embellishment. It comes as relief, for example, when Floyd King, attired as a gleefully overstuffed swami, arrives to cast some ridiculous spell or other over two of the addled twins. We're suddenly in a screwball, "Arabian Nights" installment of the Hope and Crosby "road" pictures.
Wager and Brown are the genies here, nestling the play in a picturesque seaside town of the Levant. (Ephesus is on the coast of Turkey.) It's a pastel blue and burnt-orange sultanate of fezzes and "Aladdin" slippers, where Breaker's Dromio and his master, Antipholus of Syracuse (Gregory Wooddell), have washed ashore. Little do they know their long-lost twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus (Paul Whitthorne) and his manservant, Dromio of Ephesus (LeRoy McClain) are in residence. Or that Adriana (Chandler Vinton), wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, will bed the wrong brother. Or that -- et cetera, et cetera. Brown puts the twins in lavish, costume-epic regalia. The Antipholuses are dolled up like a pair of Rudolph Valentinos; the Dromios in starched white, like bellhops at the Lawrence of Arabia Hilton.
A giant, Daliesque clock hangs over the set, to tick down the hours to Egeon's execution and remind us how much this play is about lost time. (It is one of the few works in Shakespeare that moves along in something akin to real time.) Not that Wager is too concerned with fealty of any sort. There are hints aplenty of the director's warping of perspective, from the lopsided broken mirror that frames the stage to the backdrops drawn in the mesmerizing manner of M.C. Escher.
The director tips us off early that his "Comedy of Errors" is not going to color inside the lines. After a brief prologue in dumb show that reveals the twins' origins, the townspeople burst into song, as if they were in the chorus of "The Boys From Syracuse" -- the Rodgers and Hart musical that's based on "Comedy of Errors." "Happy, happy Ephesus," they sing. "Oh, happy Ephesus."
Happy, and for long stretches, a little dull. To ward off ennui, Wager tries all sorts of ruses, at one point bringing on the dancing girls. It takes an awful lot of energy and vigilance to keep this pot stirred, and not every actor musters the kind of resourcefulness that Breaker displays. He and Wooddell make for the most charismatic pairing. King's Doctor Pinch is fun, and Victoire Charles, as a towering call girl, has presence to spare. (The production boasts both hookers and hookahs.) Cosham's Egeon, meanwhile, provides an elegant match with the Emilia of another trusty vet, Tana Hicken.
Sometimes, gussying up Shakespeare succeeds only in watering him down. In this case, all the director's trickery is a treat. And more, it seems, really can make for merrier.
The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Douglas C. Wager. Sets and costumes, Zack Brown; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; composer, Fabian Obispo; sound, Martin Desjardins; illusions, David M. Glenn; fight director, Brad Waller; choreographer, Karma Camp. With David Sabin, Bill Hamlin, Walker Jones, Ted Feldman, Don Mayo, Marni Penning and Sandra L. Murphy. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Jan. 8 at Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.