A preface for those at Sunday's Genesius Guild presentation of The Comedy of Errors: You know that horribly rude woman who talked, and talked loudly, on her cell phone through the first two minutes of the play, even after repeated shushings and one verbal request to shut the hell up? I sat three rows behind her.
And you know that cavalcade of small children who, during the show's first act, decided to use the Lincoln Park risers as their own personal jungle gym? Freakin' surrounded by 'em.
Needless to say, I felt my attentions wandering a bit in the early scenes of Shakespeare's mistaken-identity comedy, and if you, too, were there on Sunday, you couldn't be blamed for feeling the same. But I'm beginning to think that, in addition to being talented, Comedy of Errors director Jeff Coussens might be psychic, because his first inspiration here - the first among many - is to stage the opening scene so that no one could possibly miss the play's setup, even if idiots are babbling on their phones or playing tag right beside you.
Shakespeare's chaotic (and, at 100 minutes, really short) farce concerns two sets of identical twins who all wind up in the Greek city of Ephasus, where they're routinely identified - even among one another - as people they're not. And as many of the playwright's works do, the comedy opens with a lengthy soliloquy in which a character explains just how this dizzying conflux of events came to pass. (No points for correctly guessing that it involves a shipwreck.)
The soliloquizer here is Aegeon, the father of two of the four twins, and as he's played by Pat Flaherty, you could hardly ask for a more compelling intro. (In this actor's hands, even rudimentary exposition sizzles with dynamic feeling.) But perhaps anticipating distraction from the peanut gallery, Coussens has a trick up his sleeve. While Flaherty's Aegeon orates his tale from below, the story is simultaneously being told from above; in puppet-show fashion, a series of miniature paper cut-outs - seen through a second-floor window - enact the twins' separation at sea, dramatizing the crashing waves, the darkening clouds, and the rock that appears from nowhere to split the ship in half.
Oh my God, where has this idea been hiding all these years? So simple yet so funny - and, not for nothing, so helpful - this solution to the age-old dilemma of maintaining an audience's interest through a sizable Elizabethan monologue was not only met with cackling approval, but smartly set the tone for the show as a whole. Coussens let you know right off the bat that nothing here, not even the greatness of Pat Flaherty, was to be taken too seriously.
Certainly Kevin Wender and Jonathan Gregoire aren't taking themselves seriously, for which anyone watching them has to be supremely grateful. Portraying The Comedy of Errors' separated-twin servants, both named Dromio (ah, that nutty Bard!), these actors are so adept at Shakespearean verse and so vocally authoritative that it's practically an embarrassment of riches for them to also be so downright hysterical. Designed as mirror images of one another (a notion brought to visual life in Ellen Dixon's fantastically witty costumes), the Dromios share a nerdy laugh and a habit of walking hunched over, as if forever anticipating the next ass-kicking from their masters, but the actors also seem to share a symbiotic comic sense; they're wholly, joyously unafraid of appearing ridiculous. Whether Wender is hastily avoiding his accidental paramour (a stellar, Cockney-accented Lisa Pilgrim, seen too briefly) or Gregoire is squawking like a parrot, the infectious fun in their performances provides a constant thrill.
If the Dromios' identical-twin employers are less entertaining figures, it's mostly due to the nature of their straight-man roles, and maybe partly due to the enormous moustaches both are hidden behind, which might be limiting their projection (and their facial movements). Yet Neil Friberg's Antipholus of Syracuse delivers quizzical bemusement with an insouciant happiness - the actor looks like he's having a ball - and Michael Schmidt, as Antipholus of Ephasus, summarizes his character's recent history in a torrent of words lasting longer than a minute, and pulls off this killer monologue so well that he earns a deserved ovation for it.
Much of this Comedy of Errors does. Molly McLaughlin as the incensed bride Adriana, so enjoyably pissed off that the pauses before her outbursts fill you with giggly excitement at the vocal violence to come. The assured, wonderfully expressive Grace Pheiffer as Luciana, continually hitting higher and higher peaks of fluttery anxiety. Genesius Guild veterans Bob Hanske, Bryan Woods, and Michael Miller, who lend major focus even to minor roles. And then there's Michael King, whose cameo as a crackpot exorcist of sorts provides a jolt of unbridled, fearlessly jovial hamminess, and is like a welcome-back present to Genesius Guild regulars. On behalf of my fellow, equally delighted audience members, allow me to say thanks, Mike. It's great to be back.
For information, visit (http://www.genesius.org).