This 'Comedy of Errors' misses the boat

Tale of mistaken identity gets a drab retelling from Festival Theatre

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DOUG DEUCHLER

Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors especially lends itself to radical new directorial concepts. I've heard of one inventive version of the play staged as a Star Trek take-off, another as a salute to old-time slapstick comedy with characters in the mode of Laurel and Hardy. Festival Theatre did a "commedia dell'arte" version years ago with jugglers, clowns and acrobats. There's been a Mafia rendition set in 1950s Little Italy. Rodgers and Hart even fashioned it into a popular musical, The Boys From Syracuse.

Now Oak Park Festival Theatre director Jack Hickey puts a Caribbean spin on this comic romp of mistaken identity. Calypso and reggae music blend the scenes. Performing on a set of sherbet colors, cast members wear bright tropical prints. Though purists may prefer actors clad in cod pieces and Elizabethan doublets, such updating of The Bard can pump fresh energy into potentially tired material.

Opening night was warm but bug-free. The O'Hare flight pattern was co-operative so no dialogue was drowned out by overhead jets. Festival Theatre launched its 31st season with a large, anxious audience seated beneath the leafy foliage of Austin Gardens.

Times are tight and Festival Theatre needs the support of our community. So this is extremely difficult to say. But frankly, I found this production rather drab, often even monotonous. In short, it's a silly play that sinks more often than it soars.

At times the production seemed like it might take off and provide a manic Beavis-and-Butthead-Meet-The-Three-Stooges kind of evening. But it failed to ever really catch fire.

For starters, this improbable early comedy doesn't represent Shakespeare at his mature best. It's essentially a cribbing of an ancient Roman farce by Plautus about the misadventures of two sets of twins. The plot is slim, there are no "famous quote" lines of dialogue, and the stock characters are pretty one-dimensional. Much of the humor derives from 500-year-old puns and wordplay. There are fart jokes and fat chick jokes. It's like the adolescent Bard penned the play while living in a frat house.

Yet I must admit it's pretty flexible. That's probably why directors often feel so comfortable staging wild new interpretations of the 1594 comedy. There's not a lot of substance there to mess up.

The nonstop "errors" of the title are an elongated case of mistaken identity (one of Shakespeare's favorite comic plot devices) resulting from not one but two sets of identical twins. For the record, this play was written when Shakespeare's own twins were small children and by all accounts was his most popular comedy during his lifetime. But today, at least for me, all that constant confusion is more annoying than absorbing. The script, alas, is not intrinsically funny. That single running gag?#34;the mistaken identity?#34;is endlessly repeated.

But I have to hand it to them. The nimble cast of talented performers appear to be having lots of fun. Their goofiness keeps on coming.

The show begins with a seemingly endless monologue from the twins' father (Peter Coombs), recapping the shipwreck that long ago separated everyone in his family. His search for his twin sons leads to his arrest as an enemy alien in a Caribbean port. Just then, Antipholus of Syracuse (Dan Rodden) and his sidekick servant (Esteban Andres Cruz) also show up. Unknown to them an identical master (Stephen Spencer) and servant (Jon Marco) are already living on the island. But unlike the twins' father, the boys from Syracuse receive a warm reception from the islanders. A joyfully haughty woman named Adriana (Kelly Clark), who is rather like early Kate Hepburn in screwball comedies of the late 1930s, seems to think Antipholus is her husband. But he's more attracted to her hot-to-trot sister Luciana (Katherine Banks).

As the twin zany servants, the Dromios, Cruz and Marco steal every scene they're in. They're so adept at all the physical movement required and provide so much high energy it's as if a couple of long-lost Marx Brothers have been found, alive and well and living in Barbados. When a palm frond blew down off the set during one bit, Cruz picked it up and worked with this newfound prop, then helpfully removed the big leaf from the acting area. This bit of business was accomplished so naturally it appeared almost as if it were written into the script.

Other members of the large cast include Karen Yates as a priestess, Erik Hellman, Maddy Hickey, Laura Hooper, Chris Julun, Dan Marco, Brent Morrison, Mercy Oni and Ed Rutherford.

Of course, everyone gets their girl in the end and the long-separated family is reunited. It's the proverbial "all's well that ends well" deal.

I fully realize it's hard times in the arts so I have no problem with cutting corners due to tight production budgets. We don't need lavish sets or sumptuous Renaissance costumes to enjoy Shakespeare. But here the simplistic scenery almost appears unfinished, like the set in some junior high production. There's even a huge gap in the middle of the thing revealing a tall bank of lights.

This show clocks in at just two hours with one intermission. Robert W. Behr is stage manager.

The Comedy of Errors is not vintage Festival Theatre or even Shakespeare at his best. That said, I urge readers to nevertheless try to be generous to this old friend in need (the Festival company.) I know, I know. I just delineated the ways this production misses the boat. Nevertheless, get thee to Austin Gardens and support their efforts. A picnic supper from Mancini's under the stars before the show might be a magical summer experience for you. Seize the season! Before you know it, Walgreens will be putting out the Christmas cards.

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