Actors wearing suits the shade of egg yolks cruise down a stage on scooters. Balloons bob on the breeze. There's a line of Keystone Cops, and performers silently mime bits of slapstick during scene changes.
Director Ian Gallaner has festooned his Chesapeake Shakespeare Company production of The Comedy of Errors with trappings designed to make the show feel buoyant and swift, but unfortunately, the actors can't pull off the kind of high style he has in mind.
I couldn't help wishing that Gallaner had devoted less time and effort on what essentially are garnishes, and focused instead on developing even a single compelling performance on the stage at the Patapsco Female Institute's historic ruins.
Granted, The Comedy of Errors lends itself to a farcical treatment. The Shakespearean story about mistaken identity features two sets of identical twins separated at birth. Mayhem ensues when, unbeknownst to one another, they all end up in the same small town.
The comedy arises when the characters act on a set of assumptions that the audience knows to be false. But though the world that the play creates is outlandish and absurd, it seems to hold serious consequences for the characters. From their point of view, they are confronted by philandering spouses, thieving servants and children so ungrateful that they won't ransom a father from certain death.
We know that the actors are in a comedy; they think they're undergoing a tragedy.
Experienced actors talk about how their minds know that they're feigning, but their bodies do not. Even after a performance is completed, they have to cycle through the physiological states that occur when people are very angry, frightened or sad: The actors' hearts pound, their cheeks flush and their sinuses may clog.
But in Errors, there is a curious disjunction between what the actors are saying, their facial expressions and their body language.
Thus, when a character wanted to show that he's really mad, he screws up his mouth as though he'd just tasted something awful, but his eyes remain blank. When another character pounds on a locked door, his arms and shoulders flail away, but his hips are relaxed. Parents who have just been reunited with their children after an absence of decades casually leave the room where their sons remain without as much as a backward glance.
Well, at least Marilyn Johnson's costumes are worth looking at. She adorns her characters in a fruit-flavored palette of banana, kiwi and tangerine; the fuchsia and lime wigs worn by the two leading ladies are particularly fetching. Johnson also makes clever use of hoop skirts, in particular, to indicate that a slender actress is supposed to be round.
Heidi Busch's set has the same playful feel, from the giant polka dots adorning a stage wall to the noodles commonly used as beach toys, which are balanced on their ends on the building's roof. They sway in the breeze and beckon to passers by like the fingers on a hand.
In addition, the schtick that Gallaner inserts between the scenes, including such classic bits as a fat lady who drops a handkerchief and finds herself unable to pick it back up, adds a charming touch.
Also in the troupe's favor is the effort it makes to be accessible to kids, from providing a page for coloring in the program, to inviting youngsters on stage during intermission to learn the Bunny Hop. Children younger than 18 even are admitted free to all performances.
All of this is admirable, but it can't compensate for mediocre acting. An audience would willingly trade the most elaborate sets and costumes ever devised for one heartfelt moment on stage.
If you go
The Comedy of Errors runs at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City, through July 12. Show times vary. Tickets $22-$25; free for those under 18. Call 866-811-4111 or go to chesapeakeshakespeare.com.