Comedy and Errors

There's not much point in staging a stodgily reverential, doublet-and-hose version of William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. The slapstick piece about two sets of twins separated at birth is patterned after a Roman-comedy model that was hackneyed when Shakespeare borrowed it and has been beaten to death ever since. Still, the Bard's trademark sense of humor shows up at every turn in what's regarded as his first comic effort. But since the work lacks the transformative romantic undercurrents of, say, Twelfth Night or such richly drawn characters as Rosalind, Viola or Benedick, it seems ripe for immediate transport to an exotic locale or epoch.

So it's best just to fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's off-the-minaret version set in Marrakesh, where characters rush to and fro among brightly colored ruins that the program notes say are "somewhere between Road to Morocco and Raiders of the Lost Ark." The two-and-a-quarter-hour effort is impishly conceived by director John Dennis, who took a 1930s Hollywood approach to the CSF's moderately successful production of Moliere's The Miser a couple of seasons back. And it boasts flowing costumes (designed by Polly Boersig) that occupy the eye during a few tangential and long-winded scenes. There's also a mystical flute-and-drum score that's got snake-charmer allure, a couple of politically incorrect jabs and a host of fine performances that lend immediacy and originality to the flimsy work without turning it, as typically happens, into an extended stand-up routine. The director's spiced-up concept isn't completely homogeneous, but at least Shakespeare's use of the term "saffron face" seems right at home.

So does actress Reba Herman, whose full-bodied, captivating portrayal of Adriana, an exasperated Moroccan housewife, stands in welcome relief to the show's plethora of Three Stooges-like gags. In fact, the normally secondary role of Adriana becomes the audience's most reliable point of reference, in part because she witnesses the unraveling of key events. But Herman also displays admirable confidence with Shakespeare's dialogue, making it easy for the audience to view the action through Adriana's eyes. With her sonorous voice reverberating in the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre's far-flung expanse, the technically adept actress effortlessly sashays her way into theatergoers' hearts while struggling to maintain Adriana's firm grip on both her husband's whereabouts and her sister's dizzy musings.

Trouble is, Adriana has no idea that her mate, known to the audience as Antipholus of Marrakesh (Mark Light-Orr), has an identical twin, Antipholus of Syracuse (Andrew Shulman), who happens to be passing through Marrakesh. When the hot-blooded Adriana nibbles the thighs of the befuddled Syracusan--the wrong Antipholus--in an effort to force him to satisfy her carnal desires, she's coldly rebuffed. A few scenes later, the Syracusan's frigidity causes Adriana to wonder whether her lesser half is cheating on her when she spies one of the Antipholi responding to the come-hither gyrations of a belly-dancing courtesan (Tiffany Boeke).

Complicating matters further, both Antipholi have servants who are also identical twins (that trusty Shakespearean device, a shipwreck, was responsibile for splitting up the pairs of siblings when they were very young). As a result, Dromio of Syracuse (Carson Elrod) and Dromio of Marrakesh (Michael M. Milligan) have trouble figuring out which master they're serving at any particular time. In fact, the servants mistake one Antipholus for the other, deliver money and goods to the wrong people, and wind up taking beatings for each other's perceived misdeeds and broken promises. Naturally, the local constable (Anthony Marble), a manic-depressive jailer sporting a giant orange-red mustache, has a devil of a time keeping the peace. Especially when a hairy, husky "kitchen wench" named Nell (Alexander Ward) takes an unhealthy liking to one of the Dromios. After flashing sequined pasties in the audience's direction, s/he chases the object(s) of her desire to the musical accompaniment of a bleary-eyed merchant (Kalen Allmandinger), who, in addition to tweaking the action with a host of sound effects throughout, offers the out-of-towners a drag from his suspicious smoking hookah.

As might be expected, Shakespeare entrusts the male characters with the many episodes of low comedy. Apart from forcing the issue early on and displaying an unfortunate tendency to squeeze in contemporary expressions between the scripted lines, the director's exuberant charges don't often disappoint. In fact, some of their extracurricular bits, such as an extended one about flatulence and another in which a prisoner's hand becomes enbedded in the jailer's massive buttocks, elicit more laughter than anything the actors are able to achieve with Shakespeare's dialogue. (Shulman, though, deftly makes the best of both worlds with his delivery of "I understand you--not!") As the Antipholi, both Shulman and Light-Orr fulfill their unenviable tasks as straight men while also generating enough sex appeal to avoid coming off as mere comic props. Elrod and Milligan are amusing as the clownish, energetic servants.

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Jim Lillie

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