By Laura Williams   Published Nov 11, 2004 at 5:07 AM

{image1}There's a moment in Milwaukee Shakespeare's production of "The Comedy of Errors" when chaos reigns. It comes about three-quarters into the play, and most of the principles are gathered onstage. Each has some bit of business to do -- apprehend a prisoner, plead for clemency, make wild accusations, exorcise demons -- and with each of them doing those bits of business at once, it becomes a frenzied moment. Add to this the fact that they're doing it all in iambic pentameter, and it's a recipe for disaster.

But then something curious happens. It flows. The moment works, against all odds. It's a multi-voiced a cappella chorus, a Bach fugue, a ballet of color and movement and rhythm. It works, and the audience laughs.

It is only one of many memorable moments in Milwaukee Shakespeare's initial production of the season. This "The Comedy of Errors" is innovative and clever, breathing new life into one of Shakespeare's best-known comedies. Director Susan Finque has taken a number of chances with this interpretation, and with few exceptions, her gamble has paid off.

One of Shakespeare's earliest works, "The Comedy of Errors" is very much based on classical principles of drama. Unlike many of his other works, it maintains the unities of time, place and action; the action of the play happens more or less in "real time" and in one location. Like an ancient drama, the staging is minimal. The actors work on a mostly bare stage in front of the facades of three buildings, each representing a different home or place of business. The facades, designed by Sergio Villegas and built by UWM theater students, loom comically at odd angles, giving the audience its first clue this is a strange and interesting place.

We are in the city of Ephesus, thought by outsiders to be inhabited by spirits. In the first scene, old Egeon, a merchant from Syracuse, is led to the stage by Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus. Solinus explains to Egeon that such bad blood exists between Syracuse and Ephesus that any Syracusan found in his city is to be executed. But he allows Egeon to explain his presence in Syracuse before handing down the sentence.

Egeon, played with gravitas by local favorite Jonathan Gillard Daly, sets up the plot in his explanation. Many years ago, Egeon explains, he, his wife and their infant twin sons were shipwrecked and separated, each with one twin. Another set of twins was on the same boat, and they were likewise separated, each stranded with either Egeon or his lost wife.

Egeon raised the mismatched boys alone for 18 years, until his son Antipholus decided to go abroad to search for his long-lost brother. Antipholus took the other twin, now his servant Dromio, with him. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have been missing for seven years. Egeon, desperate for news of his missing son, has come to Ephesus to search for them. Moved by the story, Solinus takes pity on Egeon and commutes his death sentence -- as long as the condemned can produce a thousand marks by the end of the day. If not, he will be executed. Penniless, Egeon sets off to beg for the money, or prepare to die.

Sound complicated? It is. And that's just the beginning. The beauty of it is that Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not read. Plot twists that are incomprehensible on the page become clear in the hands of talented professionals.

Three men now enter the stage, one in fine but slightly tattered Western traveling clothes, one in the costume of a clownish servant complete with baggy pants and bowler hat, and one in the rich colors of an Eastern merchant. Thanks to the excellent work of costume designer Jessica Ford, we now know that this port of Ephesus is a meeting place, a kind of crossroads, maybe even for long-lost brothers.

The traveler and his servant are, of course, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse; the third man is a merchant. The merchant warns Antipholus about the city's reputation for enchantment, so Antipholus sends Dromio ahead to the inn with their money. Curiously, Dromio returns just a moment later to fetch his master home to dinner with his wife. Antipholus takes a long look at Dromio. It's Dromio, all right -- same baggy pants, same little bowler hat. But what home? What dinner? What wife? And now we know that another Antipholus and Dromio, twins to the first pair, have lived in Ephesus for 18 years.

Mistaken identities fill up the rest of the play, made all the more comical by the insertion of modern songs into the action. The characters break into song often, sometimes to lend a comical punchline to a scene, sometimes to clarify the plot. It's an unusual choice, but one in keeping with the farcical theme. The gimmick only falls flat once or twice.

But generally, the cast is up to the challenge. Todd Denning and Matt Daniels as the Antipholus pair are charming and funny, and become more desperately unhinged as the plot twists mount. Abbey Siegworth and Marcy Kearns are delightful as Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus, and Luciana, her sister. Daly doubles as Doctor Pinch, a schoolmaster, and old Egeon. And the entire cast brings Shakespeare's words to life with its verbal agility.

But Kevin Rich gives the standout performance as Dromio of Syracuse. (Or is it Ephesus?) He plays the role with the agility and energy of a silent film star. Finque's final innovation makes him the center of action and the star of the production. His Dromio of Ephesus is lightning quick and funny as hell.

Or is it Dromio of Syracuse?

Keep your eye on that hat.

"The Comedy of Errors" runs through Nov. 14, including a special two-for-one ticket deal to sets of twins on Thursday, Nov. 11. For more information, performance schedules and tickets, call the UWM Peck School box office at (414) 229-4308, Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.