‘Comedy of Errors’ review: Shakespeare, Golden Age of Film collide on the outskirts of the play

Long-lost twins Dromio of Syracuse (Ross Lehman, left) and Dromio of Ephesus (Kevin Gudahl) meet in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors.”

Liz Lauren

Comforting nostalgia is not usually what you’d expect from a production of “The Comedy of Errors,” one of Shakespeare’s lightest, most farcical comedies.  

But this Chicago Shakespeare show isn’t really “The Comedy of Errors.” 

I don’t mean that in a snobbish, purist sense. I mean that in a very real sense; this entire evening is much more about the play-outside-the-play (as opposed to the play-within-the-play). And even more, perhaps, seeing this show is about the events outside the playing of this play, which, as noted, is not really “The Comedy of Errors.”

Let me explain.

This is the valedictory production as artistic director for Barbara Gaines, who founded and led Chicago Shakespeare from its days performing in a pub to its status as a major institution, with a regional Tony Award and a grand, multi-theater space on Navy Pier. 

‘The Comedy of Errors’


When: Through April 16

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand

Tickets: $49-$92

Info: chicagoshakes.com

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission

For her farewell, Gaines has chosen to re-stage a production from 2008 with many of her favorite collaborators.  But let’s just consider that part of the comedy; they could actually make more of it.

And the production involves an entirely separate script, written and now re-written by Second City veteran Ron West. The idea is that a group of actors who worked together on a popular pirate movie have come together in 1940 in England, during the Nazi blitz, to contribute their part to the war effort by making a film of “The Comedy of the Errors.” The nation needs entertainment, you see.  

This goes way beyond the relatively common technique of framing a Shakespeare play with a simple set-up. West’s play-outside-the-play becomes the main attraction. Even though we get nearly the full story, “The Comedy of Errors” feels more sampled than fully done, although the denouement, in which two sets of twins finally appear on stage at the same time and discover the cause of all the play’s comic confusions, still manages to provide a pinnacle.

Overall, though, it’s far, far more entertaining watching the superlative actors Ross Lehman and Kevin Gudahl banter and clash as the film’s director and the egomaniacal classic thespian respectively, than it is to watch them as the two twin servant characters, both named Dromio. The best ongoing bit of the night involves Gudahl’s character trying to find a way to insert the famed St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V,” and Lehman’s resisting it. It may not sound funny. It’s funny.  

Given the sheer volume of shenanigans, the polish of this production most certainly impresses. The design work here, particularly from set designer James Noone, is of the highest order, elaborate when needed, spare when appropriate, somehow never intrusive. 

And the supporting players all have their moments. As the director’s unfaithful actress wife, Susan Moniz delivers a convincing killer stare. As the dashing leading man with a heart murmur, Robert Petkoff shows us what happens when an actor forgets his own phobias. And Dan Chameroy, as a star singer with an alcohol issue, shows us how to maul iambic pentameter before showing us the opposite.

Does West’s extensive script here add up to a full-on entrée?

It doesn’t. There’s a genre in which actors’ offstage and onstage lives merge — think Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” or, in Shakespearean-like terms, Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate,” which is happily not “The Taming of the Shrew.” But West’s take on this never gets to that level. It’s enjoyable but incomplete, neither fully satisfying on its own nor able to activate the Shakespearean scenes with extra insight or inflection.  

But this is a love letter to theatricals — undoubtedly why Gaines selected it — and wow, there is something special about the affection for actors and acting, and particularly acting with each other, that emanates from that stage when Lehman and Gudahl are on it.  

In the end, this production of (not) “The Comedy of Errors” feels like going to a festive farewell tribute and gorging for nearly three hours on flavorful appetizers.

You wouldn’t consider it a great meal, and the old friends who host it repeat stories they’ve told before, but it’s certainly a good time, leaving you with the friendly warm and fuzzies.

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