Chicago Shakes will live on, but the Barbara Gaines Repertory Company, a robustly skilled and eternally jovial group of Chicago players central to this city’s cultural history, shuts up.
The founding artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater may direct a show here or there in retirement, but the production of “The Comedy of Errors” that opened Thursday night at Navy Pier is, in more ways than I first realized, both Gaines’ last show as artistic director and the end of an era. For that reason, dear reader, you’ll have to forgive some sentiments from a critic who witnessed most of this remarkable woman’s trajectory from the Red Lion Pub to a major art complex. For me, at least, this isn’t just another “Comedy of Errors.”
Gaines, a populist bardologist if ever there was one, decided to go out not with an epic tragedy of self-definition, but with a good laugh. And that’s what the show delivers, not much more, certainly not less. It’s actually a remount of a Gaines production from 2008 that I remember well. Second City veteran Ron West wrote a new setting for the Elizabethan comedy of mistaken identity.
“Credit goes to rewrite man” was the headline of my old review and it pretty much said it all: West envisioned a scenario where a bunch of British actors would make a film of the “Comedy of Errors” at Shepperton Studios in wartime England and West didn’t so much create a frame as write a thoroughly enjoyable show for itself, shoehorning in bits of the play itself, and giving it more stage time in Act 2. At the time, I spoke about the legitimacy of such an action. , given that audiences responded more to the western parts than the Shakespearean ones (not a fair contest, perhaps given the demands of the language) and how audiences need time to adjust to Shakespearean cadences, and if you keep pulling them in and out, it’s just harder for them.
All of this is still true, but there was no reason to give a shit Thursday night.
Gaines has reunited much of that 2008 cast, especially Ross Lehman and Kevin Gudahl, the hilarious tweedle-dee and dumb of the bewigged Dromios. Not all were available (I just reviewed a 2008 cast member, Sean Allen Krill, in “Parade” on Broadway), but I suspect offers went out to most everyone. That was the point, and from my seat I could see how Gaines had changed the lives of these actors, all regulars over the past decades at the theater company she created. Everyone was having a great time, but you could sense the feeling, the feeling that something is coming to an end. Great Chicago actors such as William Dick, Ora Jones, Lillian Castillo, Breon Arzell, Robert Petkoff, Bruce A. Young and Greg Vinkler are all part of Gaines’ history of a theater that has introduced professional Shakespeare to more Chicagoans than any other company . And thanks in no small part to customer Mieka Van Der Ploeg and hair guru Richard Jarvie, they all look amazing. All that and Susan Moniz and Melanie Brezill too.
Gaines’ legacy is one of accessibility, and as such she has added text on numerous occasions over the years, most notoriously even hiring Neil LaBute to write a frame around “The Taming of the Shrew.” The less said about that mishap the better, respect to all involved, but that makes the “Comedy” reprise all the more apt as Gaines’ version of “see ya suckers,” especially since West’s kind of humor is so tied to Second City’s own . influence on comedic entertainment. In fact, I’d say that particular writer/director was arguably among the two or three most influential directors and performers on Wells Street. Gaines, of course, wasn’t so much influential on the Chicago Shakes as existential.
I ran into West in the house. “Some tweaks to the script, but nothing major?” I asked him, trying not to trust my memory. “To you, tweaks,” he said dryly. “For me important.”
Funny guy. Generous show. And very apropos of Gaines’ magnificent contribution to this city.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “The Comedy of Errors” (3 stars)
When: Through April 16
Where: Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater at Navy Pier
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Tickets: $35-$92 at 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com