February 10, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
The Bard’s bombast

Dromio of Ephesus (Darius Pierce), left, with his master, Antipholus of Ephesus (Bruce Nelson) in ‘The Comedy of Errors’ at Folger Theatre through March 6. (Photo by Carol Pratt; courtesy of Folger)

‘The Comedy of Errors’

Through March 6

Folger Theatre

201 East Capitol Street, S.E.

$39-$60

202-544-7077

Typically, folks either like farce or they don’t. For those who aren’t big fans of the genre, seeing Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” might change their minds.

An early and popular entry in the bard’s canon, this more-than 400-year-old comedy is generally a crowd-pleasing romp crammed full of slapstick, mistaken identities and highly improbable situations. And while it’s true this zany farce is often produced, director Aaron Posner manages to set his Folger effort apart from the others with a clever prologue.

The show begins with Bruce Nelson (who’s gay) as Timothy Tushingham, the present day manager of the fictional Worcestershire Masque and Wig Society, screening a half-finished documentary featuring a brief history of the old company and interviews with its D-list actors. After two centuries of hiatus, the smug little family group is back, and, as explained in the short film, more than eager to put its own scattered (Edwardian-ish, mod, rocker) imprimatur on Shakespeare’s comedy.

Though Posner’s mockumentary portends an evening full of blunders and stiltedly bad performances, the actual play dispels all such notions — it’s both faultlessly staged and beautifully acted. The top-notch cast leaves all inept documentary personas on screen and brings very funny, smartly drawn performances to the stage.

The comedy’s plot is so over-the-top that its advancement requires an almost full suspension of belief: A terrible tempest (that favorite of Shakespearean devices) breaks up two sets of twins: the noble pair, Antipholus of Syracuse (the excellent Darragh Kennan) and Antipholus of Ephesus (again Nelson), and the other pair, servants Dromio of Syracuse (Nathan Keepers) and Dromio of Ephesus (Darius Pierce). When Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio travel to Epheus in search of their respective identical twins all kinds of mistaken identity madness (seduction, theft, demonic possession) ensues. Exactly why the boys from Syracuse who’ve come expressly to find their mirror images are baffled by the confusion they create is unclear, but who cares — it’s all in good fun.

While touching on serious issues of family, money and class, “The Comedy of Errors” is first and foremost an unmistakable manic farce with all the requisite door slamming, screeches and tomfoolery. Still, the evening’s most humorous moments are also its quietest: the silent, bemused glances exchanged when the two Antipholuses silently pass on the streets of Ephesus and the scene-stealing come-hither looks thrown by a sexy, dim-witted courtesan (the delightful Rachel Zampelli). Off to the side, mime-costumed musician Jesse Terrill adds to the fun with the well-timed rim shot and puckish taps on the xylophone.

The production’s superb design includes Tony Cisek’s fun house-colored, many-doored set, and Kate Turner-Walker’s hip, Edwardian-ish costumes. Aaron Cromie has designed terrific theatrical masks that exaggerate the male characters’ noses, cheeks and ears. Each set of twins wears matching masks. With bald heads and outsized glasses and noses, the Dromios (who admirably pull off the lion’s share of the show’s physical comedy) are dead ringers for “Mr. Six,” the frenetic, dancing man from the Six Flags TV ads. When these identical servants finally meet face to face, one says to the other “I see by you I am a sweet-faced youth.” Hilarious.

After two hours of crazy zigzags, things begin to come together with the appearance of reliable Folger regular Catherine Flye in the part of the stern abbess who, as it turns out, is the final piece of the fractured family puzzle. It is she with her wisdom and heartfelt words, poignantly delivered by Flye, who ultimately gives meaning to all the mayhem.

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