Beach Blanket Lingo

Surf's up, Shakespeare. Tweaking the Bard is the latest rage on the stage--witness Theatre on Broadway's current compressed version of his "compleat works"--and the Denver Center Theatre Company is hanging ten with its new production of The Comedy of Errors. It's set on the beaches of sunny Southern California, where the dudes and the babes bleach blond and tan luxuriously in the sun. And director James Dunn's outrageous affront to tradition is just what the old boy needed. This is not one of Shakespeare's better plays, after all, and Dunn's wild and woolly approach actually invests the story with more energy and fun than it deserves. Cool.

The absurd story is one Shakespeare borrowed from Roman playwright Plautus, a shtickmeister if ever there was one. It's all about two sets of identical twins--one noble, the other common, with the common ones brought up to serve the noble ones. Separated in infancy during a storm at sea, Antipholus I and his servant, Dromio I, are picked up by a fishing boat and carried off with the Antipholuses' mom to one port, while Antipholus II and Dromio II are carried off with noble dad Aegeon to another. Eventually, all of them show up in Ephesus to act out a silly story based on mistaken identities. Both Dromios are beaten for all their cheerful efforts to please their respective masters, and much of the comedy revolves around the injustices done to the two servant brothers.

Shakespeare waxes eloquent over the shrewish behavior of Adriana, the wife of Antipholus I. But he never offers a word of reproach to the ungentle gentlemen who rashly punish their obedient servants. Director Dunn appreciates how difficult it is to sell this dated form of comedy to modern audiences, so he goes all out with pratfalls, surfer babble and Valley-girl accents a la the hit movie Clueless. There are also chase sequences, tumbling and exuberant line readings that keep the audience, as well as the cast, breathless and giddy.

Much of this production's hilarity is directly attributable to Mark Rubald's surfer-dude performance as Dromio I. He has absolutely mastered the dialect and attitude of the Southern California subculture, and his ingenious physical comedy is a marvel to behold. John Hutton is likewise at home as Dromio I's master, the somewhat sleazy Antipholus I. And both actors are believably double-cast as their own twins: The Antipholuses are mean as snakes, while the Dromios are wiley as coyotes.

Jacqueline Antaramian is adorable as the ever-jealous Adriana, jabbering a mile a minute and exploding furiously at appropriate intervals. Carol Halstead makes an effective foil for Antaramian as Adriana's milder sister, Luciana--she's careful to make Luciana's pious speeches about a woman's place sound absurd enough to gag us with a spoon.

Dunn, meanwhile, pours on the pop-culture references, from The Godfather to Jaws and every surfer movie ever made. Even the woeful Denver Nuggets somehow get into the act. The curtain call is a head-rush frenzy of Beach Boys tunes attended by a full company rockout.

Of course, purists will complain. A certain amount of grumbling could be heard as patrons filed out of the theater after one recent performance. Certainly Dunn has taken extravagant liberties with the language, and not even he can completely rescue this play from all its tedious repetitions. Despite the Beach Boys' crooning in the background and Bill Curley's terrific set, which includes a sandy beach, it does take a while to warm to the production. But Dunn had good reasons for all his choices--even the ones that don't work. As Clueless's Alicia Silverstone might put it, the result is totally classic.


The Comedy of Errors, through February 23 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.