Saying that Christopher Marino merely enjoys the works of William Shakespeare is quite an understatement. The director of UNCW’s spring season kickoff, “Comedy of Errors,” works with the Bard’s dialogue onstage the way other artists work with paints on canvas. Using words, he reframes the very world of these renowned plays but never bastardizes their themes. I’ve been lucky enough to have caught two of his past stagings: “Macbeth” for Dram Tree Productions and “Twelfth Night” with Alchemical Theatre. Both were top-notch—one a traditional take, the other a David Lynch-infused Dust Bowl dream. Marino gets how these shows should move.
Bringing Shakespearean plays to a modern audience can be a tricky task. Unfortunately, these timeless tales have been labeled “old hat” by some of the masses. The Elizabethan English and iambic pentameter make it easy to get lost. Yet, Marino confronts that misconception. He truly makes what’s old new again.
It’s his third outing with “Comedy of Errors,” and he has pulled out the stops creatively to give audiences a feast for the eyes. The production mixes the madcap, zany nature of the silent film era with the quick vocal wit of Shakespeare. It never fails to create genuine warm laughter and has a solid cast and creative team.
Before the show’s official start, members of the cast serenade the audience with a series of melancholy folk songs. From Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver, each fit well with musical director Adrian Varnam’s aesthetic for the sound of the production. Yet, I was confused by the inclusion of these particular songs before what is, in fact, a rather funny comedy. The point of this opening segment escaped me.
Once the show properly begins, it takes little time for it to find its breakneck pace. It opens with the sad Syracusian trader Aegeon (Hunter Jarman) recounting the woe which has brought him to the shores of Ephesus. It seems he was searching for the family he lost years ago aboard a ship that was torn apart. A storm took away his wife, one of his twin sons and one of the, um, human pets he bought for his twin sons (yeah—it was a different time).
This flashback is shown in amazing effect by the use of a film shot by Anya Ekaterina, Jacqueline Mangrum and Will Ross. Here the seeds are planted for the overall comedy style. The trio uses tricks that would have made Buster Keaton smile. The simple yet brilliant way they depict the roaring storm that destroys the ship is hilarious. It is the second time I’ve seen Marino “show” a storm indoors—both have left me floored. Bravo!
Like most of Shakespeare’s comedies, there are mishandled messages, plenty of delightful, romantic misunderstandings and ruminations on fate versus coincidence. But mistaken identity is key to the frame of the plot. “Comedy of Errors” follows two sets of twins, whose parents’ lack of originality has cursed them with the same name. The Antipholus twins (played by Davis Wood and Jack Tower) and their ever-loyal servants, the Dromio twins (Brandi Simmons and Katie Anderson) fracture the “leads” of the play superbly. All four bring a different yet prevalent sense of fun to the stage. To even try and play favorites would be a disservice to all of their hard work. I applaud both pairs who create convincing siblings. With shared traits and reactions but distinct personalities, they do more than merely mimic each other.
Davis Wood as Antipholus of Syracuse oozes an arrogance easily mistaken for confidence. He embraces the good fortune erroneously shoveled upon him. Jack Tower embraces a more manic slapstick style with Antipholus of Ephesus as he plays the fool to his brother’s fortunes. His frustrated exchanges over the ownership of a gold chain and the refused entry to his own home are hilarious.
Brandi Simmons imbibes Dromio of Syracuse with a frightful nature of being lost in a strange new land. She reminds me of Shaggy from the old Scooby-Doo cartoons; her escape through the impressive if underused set is sight-gag gold. Katie Anderson as Dromio of Ephesus really shines. Her animated defenses are the pinnacle of physical comedy. The few scenes the two share are fantastic and highlights of the whole production.
The cast is rather large, even for an edited Shakespeare play. Some members of the ensemble feel underutilized, though others leave solid impressions. Erin Sullivan as Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, really owns the stage with a strong presence when teamed with Renee Hapeman as Luciana, her ride-or-die sister. The pair produce some truly funny moments mirroring the affluent malevolence of “The Real Housewives of [Wherever].”
Mitchell Nobles as Anglo the goldsmith stands out with his laid-back street-smart New York-accent approach to the third-tier role.
Once the laughter starts, it doesn’t stop. I was caught off guard by how quickly the first act passed and was disappointed when the pace needed to slow for the story to catch up. It all but stops to reach what feels like an interrupted conclusion, albeit a happy one.
The set is massive and designed to the nines by scenic designer Randall A. Enlow. Six staked boxes formulate the bubbling city of Ephesus—each possessing aspects that will have audiences dissecting the backstories. Each has its own color palette and housing—everything from lavish furniture to a rudimentary set of Tesla coils. The only drawback is how forgotten a majority of it seems to be. Though people are blocked to simply be there, long chunks of action take place around them, and certain pods aren’t necessarily used. So much work and detail has been put toward the set, but it seems underutilized.
The lighting by Rachel Levy has grand flourishes of interest here and there, but overall it underwhelms. Levy plots each pod with its own lighting, and the sources of light are well-thought-out. At times, I had trouble seeing spots due to darkness.
The production’s costuming is impressive and tips its hat to the roaring ’20s motif. The matching striped suits used for the Antipholus twins, the steampunk-inspired Dr. Pinch and his wasp women nurses all stand out.
I enjoy seeing how Marino chooses to adapt to his ventures. His passionate care for the Bard’s text mines new and interesting takes on much-handled properties. There are very few errors in “Comedy of Errors.”