Comedic License

Tucked away on Ellis Avenue, Court Theatre’s mission is summarized well by its claim of taking a “bold and risky approach to the classics.” Its name embraces its grounding in the classic theater and masque that flourished at the 17th-century English court while the slogan in its brochure, “Just minutes from the Loop in Hyde Park!” reflects an awareness of its position as an outpost of professional theater on the South Side.

Its most recent reinvention is Sean Graney’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors,” reworked so that the more formal madness of the original is loosened into a mystifying contemporary dreamscape. In person, director Graney betrays his partiality for this blend of the classical (his zero-tolerance policy concerning theatre novices) and the innovative (his quirky hat). His lecture at the University of Chicago, was titled “Can monkeys make theater?”–a question he promised that he would not be able to answer. At the talk, he exuded the kooky intelligence that permeates his latest production. He discussed the notion that “all the world’s a stage,” illustrating scenarios in which people “accelerate” their personalities and in doing so create characters out of themselves. He warned his audience not to try to distinguish earnestness from performance for fear of “losing your minds.” The irony of the lecture was that Graney was himself a character; while he seemed startled one-on-one, he was as hard as nails during his speech. The swearing and sexual references during the lecture seemed very much at odds with the person one shook hands with afterwards. Even the hat seemed to be a costume.

And costume really is one of the highlights of Graney’s newest production, an even more farcical representation of Shakespeare’s famous farce, “The Comedy of Errors.” Every aspect of each actor’s attire is ridiculous and extreme, but in a way that holds together the character’s essence so that the sharp angles of Egeon’s coat and his obscured face make him seem even more tragic than his words and body language already convey. The visual impact of the costumes intensifies the two-dimensional nature of the characters (with the exception of the spherical Luce, whose appearance in Act III Scene I is a highlight of the show) and thus makes the play into theater of the absurd. By modernizing the figures parodied in the work, Graney reanimates the humor in “The Comedy of Errors” so that Shakespeare’s jokes come through for Court Theatre’s contemporary audience, missing the mark only once or twice. And even then the actors’ flexible improvisation makes up for the momentary awkwardness. The chemistry is particularly evident between Alex Goodrich (Dromeo) and Erik Hellman (Antipholus) who seem to understand even the most intimate nuances of their characters’ relationship, so that even sexual innuendo succeeds in piercing the play’s archaic dialogue.

All the actors skillfully emphasize the tricks in Shakespeare’s language, exaggerating them so that the words become as significant in their wit as they would have been in the time they were written. In Act II, for example, the interchange between Dromeo of Syracuse and Ariadne, ‘By me?’ ‘By thee’ is repeated four or five times, to great comic and linguistic effect, acknowledging the symmetry of the words in a very intelligent analysis of Shakespeare’s language. The most satisfying aspect of the production is precisely this: the combinations of the comic and the intellectual, old and new, Epheseus and Chicago, reality and dreams are all so well manipulated that an audience can leave feeling glad that Graney has restated the Great Bard’s words in his own strange tongue. 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through October 17. Wednesday-Thursday, 7:30pm. Friday-Saturday, 8pm. Sunday, 7:30pm. (773)753-4472. courtheatre.org