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Screwball Comedy

A Comedy of Errors for the television age

A director undertaking Shakespeare has one basic decision to make: present the play essentially in accordance with the Bard's intentions, thereby appealing to the purist audience, or, a la the late Joseph Papp in New York's Central Park, tinker with the play, changing locales, casting nontraditionally, updating the politics of subtexts and creating other like effects that enlarge its reach but don't violate its core. Charlene Hudgins, director of The Gypsy Theatre Company's lively production of A Comedy of Errors, opts for the latter, mounting the merry play about mistaken identities as a soap opera fresh from today's tube. Ripe with modern melodramatic associations, the production takes this time-honored warhorse out to new pastures.

A Comedy of Errors is, of course, the visit to the city of Ephesus by unmarried nobleman Antipholus and his trusty servant, Dromio. Unbeknownst to them, both have twins with the same names in the city. Confusion -- and comedy -- ensues, especially when Adriana, the forceful wife of the Antipholus in Ephesus, can't understand why the man she assumes to be her husband has designs on her winsome young sister Luciana.

Now, what do you do with the theater's most famous doppelgangers when there are no twin actors in town? Do you use masks, costumes, props, makeup or other theatrical magic to create the illusion of likeness? Do you opt for passing resemblances and hope the audience will be indulgent? Instead, wily director Hudgins casts one actor as both Antipholuses and another as both Dromios; for the scenes requiring them to be both brothers at once, she takes advantage of our era's readily available advanced technology: videotape. A television, perhaps the most dreaded bugaboo in theater, hangs high above the set, and, for example, in the confrontation scene when one Dromio refuses to open the door to the other and his master, it is the televised intruders with whom he argues. The recognition scene that resolves the play occurs "offstage," in a series of cross cuts filmed at a local chapel. It's a nifty conceit.

So that she's not mixing her theatrical metaphors, Hudgins shrewdly sets the increasingly delirious proceedings in the present. She also sees to it that adjustments in acting style are made when all the world's a small screen. In fact, much of what she does works very well, imbuing the production with the spirit and fun befitting Shakespeare's whimsy. She even pulls off a small coup de theatre by transforming one Antipholus' courtesan into a vamp who sings "Why Can't You Behave?" to the wrong brother. At one point Hudgins manages to accommodate nearly the entire ensemble on the tiny stage of Houston Skyline Theater -- no mean feat, this. Neither is bringing the breezy production in at around two hours without making it feel scant. But most to her credit is that the cast members clearly know the text inside and out, and many of them act up a storm.

Because Hudgins does so many things right, one wishes that she had worked out a few inconsistencies. The show is billed as a "Young and the Restless version of A Comedy of Errors": soap operas, both daytime and O.J., play on the television prior to curtain and during scene changes, and a spoofy riff that "we still have one life to live because these are the days of our lives" is written into the beginning. Yet with golf clubs at one point raised as weapons, witches offered as the explanation for everyone's confusion, and responses often as exaggerated as Jerry Lewis', the production -- and the original text -- is more screwball than soap. What's more, with the large number of "twin" movies that Hollywood and the television networks have fashioned, better use could have been made of -- and the commercials could have been cut from -- what we watch during downtime.

Even more middling and muddling is that the show is framed as a taping of a soap opera: a stage manager walks onto the set before both acts to say "action"; a cue-card girl "helps" an actor who purposefully goes up on a line; an actress gets ready in a dressing room the audience can see. I guess these "show biz" intrusions are intended to make the televised scenes not feel like sore contrivances, but they distract rather than embellish, and don't feel thought out or integrated. The same goes for the improvisational group led by David Hickox that roams around before both acts pretending to be nerdy tourists looking for Rush Limbaugh and Geraldo, and that functions as rather inept stagehands during scene changeovers. They simply aren't accounted for -- or funny.

Of the principal cast, two are very appealing. Frenetic Jacob Robertson is limitlessly energetic as the much-abused Dromios, the put-upon servants who, even in the most trying of times, can turn a robust phrase or two. Though a bit scant on the differentiation between his two characters, he performs eye-catching tricks, yo-yoing around the stage as he is twirled all sorts of ways by his masters both real and mistaken. T. Oscar Johnson, as the fair gentle maiden Luciana, is even better. With Julie Hagerty's deportment in Bernadette Peters' body, this sweetly endearing physical comedienne is all gasps and quivers and gapes and flinches and grimaces. A responsive listener who always seems to be in a tizzy, she takes a potentially humdrum scene -- when she thinks the Antipholus who woos her is her sister's husband -- and through whoops and spasms, tics and wringings, gets as hysterically hot and bothered as a prim girl can. Hers is a star turn.

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