Stand-up comedy in Shakespeare? How about slapstick? Or musical interludes from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? All these things and more romp through director Gregory Boyd's raucous new take on one of Shakespeare's zaniest tales of mistaken identity, The Comedy of Errors. Catching the Shakespeare-popularity wave, the Alley Theatre has taken what some believe to be Shakespeare's oldest script and turned it into a thoroughly modern, Looney Tune show of the silliest order.
It all starts when Egeon (Charles Krohn), a merchant from Syracuse, is washed up on the exotic shores of Ephesus. Imagined, in this production, as a 1940s, Casablanca-like, war-torn country filled with silky, kitteny, dark-eyed women and stealthy, uniformed, desert-rat soldiers, Ephesus is no place to find yourself lost -- especially if you're from Syracuse, for decrees allow "no traffic" between the two countries.
Egeon is in deep trouble, and his tale of woe comes in the form of a very long, expository monologue. Boyd's first smart, bold and very funny stroke is to tell this tale on reel-to-reel, black-and-white film. We watch the clumsy home movie as Egeon narrates his family's misfortune: Lost at sea, he and his wife and his twin infant sons and their twin infant servants are all separated. Twenty-three years later, Egeon is still searching for them.
The Comedy of Errors
runs through March 5 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas.
The Duke of Ephesus, played as a campy Heart of Darkness-style demigod by James Belcher, takes pity on Egeon and puts off his execution long enough for the old man to find someone who'll buy his way out of jail. Meanwhile (there's always a "meanwhile" in Shakespeare's comedies), Antipholus of Syracuse (James Black) arrives with his man Dromio (John Tyson) in tow. Antipholus is just in Ephesus for a little vacation. It seems the blockheaded boy has been off at university, Syracuse University to be exact (Boyd's perfectly silly idea, not Shakespeare's), and thus knows nothing about the trouble between the two nations. Wearing brown saddle oxfords, a creamy rich-boy suit and plastered-down hair, he's every bit the goofy geek who knows nothing about the real world. And Dromio's knee-length shorts and striped T-shirt establish right from the get-go that he's the underling servant man.
In fact all of Fabio Toblini's costumes serve the wonderfully farcical nature of this production, even as they establish the politics of this fantastical land that has been colonized, 1940s-style, by Europeans. The indigenous citizens hover at the margins of this world. Ephesian women slipper through the town with their faces covered, while the white, ruling-class women strut the streets in big Hollywood glasses, satiny gowns that hug their curves and hair that flows in long Rita Hayworth waves. The exotic gorgeousness resides quite happily beside the bright colors and polka-dot patterns that firmly establish the cartoony nature of all the mistaken-identity shenanigans that keep the plot tumbling forward.
Once he ditches his rah-rah university flag, Antipholus of Syracuse looks so much like some other cat who also goes by the name Antipholus that strange women begin to offer him the most, umm, difficult choices. You see, Antipholus of Ephesus (also James Black) has been stepping out on his wife, Adriana (Annalee Jefferies). She's so hopping mad that she sends the servant man Dromio of Ephesus (also played by John Tyson) out on the streets to fetch her husband home. Dromio of Ephesus runs into Antipholus of Syracuse and mistakes him for Antipholus of Ephesus, and Antipholus figures Dromio of Ephesus is his own Dromio of Syracuse, and, well, you get the picture. Nothing but silly slapstick trouble comes out of all this confusion -- trouble and a whole lot of fun in the form of food fights and whippings by celery and whatnot.
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Boyd and his cast have taken little liberties with Shakespeare's script. When the sorcerer comes to free Antipholus from his "madness" (why else would he be acting so strangely?), Dromio mutters something about the "hoo doo that you do so well." And in one hysterical scene in a speakeasy, a Henny Youngman-style stand-up comedian tells one-liners in Ephesian (a Boyd invention). When he's done, Antipholus and Dromio find themselves on the same stage, prattling off the one-liners that Shakespeare did write about a "spherical" woman who has been chasing the wrong Dromio all over town.
Of course Boyd's bold direction would fall flat were it not for his terrific cast, with John Tyson at the epicenter of the zaniness. Tyson's take on Shakespeare's farcical lines is so intelligent and so ironic and so just plain goofy that he makes Boyd's far-out take on Shakespeare's story seem utterly obvious. His energy spills across the stage, to the rest of the cast and over the audience. He's simply a joy to watch.
This production is Shakespeare as it should be: ballsy, brazen, utterly irreverent and stamped with the signatures of the Three Stooges, the Marks brothers and Saturday-afternoon spaghetti westerns. Boyd is fearless, which is the only way to grab hold of writing as big as Shakespeare's.
The Comedy of Errors runs through March 5 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, (713)228-8421. $37-$42.