Full-on farce makes up for lack of the Bard

-Chris Jones

Early in his outre and provocative directorial career, you’d never have tapped Chicago director Sean Graney as a master farceur. But Graney is proving remarkably adept with wigs, prat falls, mistaken identities and soft heads smacking into hard moving doors. Even pierced hipsters have to eat. Some of them even have to laugh.

Hard on the heels of his hit Court Theatre production of Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep” comes a similarly amusing Graney take on “The Comedy of Errors.”

Well, the title in the program says “The Comedy of Errors.” There isn’t a great deal of the Bard’s actual prose on the Court stage. The show runs only about 90 minutes, and many of the lines come from the pen of Graney, rather than the quill of Shakespeare, who didn’t usual write lines like “How y’all doin’?”

This is really a Theater-of-the-Ridiculous (or Neo-Futurist) kind of take on “Comedy of Errors,” wherein six actors (six very, very funny actors) play all of the various Dromios, Antiopholi and random hookers and hangers-on. Anachronisms abound and you get everything from audience participation to gently obscene musical interludes. Think “The Bomb-itty of Errors” (minus the rap) meets “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (minus the ABBA) and you get the basic idea.

I can’t get over how many Chicago theaters of late have been sticking up one of Old Bill’s plays on the marquee and then messing with the text. It doesn’t fill me with outrage — unlike some of my more regular correspondents. This kind of experimentation is precisely why creative works must eventually become public domain; I don’t think many people at Saturday’s opening missed the missing lines.

But you do get moments — when you’re not laughing — when you start to wonder why Graney didn’t just write his own play. It’s also worth noting that this “Comedy of ” has little or nothing to say about many of the deeper and more emotional themes present in the full text, such as the notion that comic complications are derived from the panic we tend to experience when we’re away from the people we love. I’ve been moved by fine productions of this play; you won’t be moved here.

But you will, I think, be greatly amused. Which is the entire point. There are copious amounts of comedic invention, and the zany Alex Goodrich develops a relationship with the audience that’s wholly in keeping with the traditions of classic farce. With his big head of hair and hound-dog demeanor, Goodrich walks off with the show, despite the very fine efforts of Erik Hellman (an ideal dry foil), a wide-eyed Stacy Stoltz and the hilarious Elizabeth Ledo (who has many a bizarre character here) to hang on to the scruff of its neck.

The pace is breakneck indeed, the tone a savvy mix of the outrageous and the sardonic, and the comedy exquisitely timed. But the real pleasures here come from the level of physical invention — Jacqueline Firkins’ spectacular costumes are like an entire parade of silly attire, stuffing, pads and all. I watched one initially tight-lipped sourpuss in the front row Saturday night get completely won over by the amusements on view. Her initial resistance was turned into rubble. Good for the show.
I confess a slight disappointment at the nonetheless funny climax, when Graney doesn’t quite deliver (as he did with “Irma Vep”) on the implied promise that the two sets of identical twins will all appear together, as the play demands. Granted, that’s tricky with two actors playing four characters, but I was hoping models, dummies, technology, ringers and who knows what else would be employed in the delivery of the grand illusion. Next time, perhaps.