Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Anything that comes off in a character’s hand turns out to be dynamite; dynamite never explodes before all the characters are peering at it up close; and boxes made by the Acme Corporation with levers that say “pull” are big trouble.
Only instead of “beep beep” and wooden signs, “The Comedy of Errors” has thees, thous and wherefores, not to mention more double entendres and puns than an episode of “Beavis and Butt-head.” In the hands of Kenneth Albers, the cartoon physics reigns in the Shakespeare classic.
It seems that patriarch Egeon (Dan Kremer) has a hyper-developed sense of the absurd and decided not only to name both his twin boys (Ted Deasy and Grant Goodman) Antipholus but to hire for them a pair of (twin, natch) servant boys, both of whom are named Dromio (Catherine Lynn Davis and Mikelle Johnson DRA ’05).
A shipwreck separates the Dromios and the Antipholi such that each of two warring cities contains one master and one servant, and when circumstances stage an impromptu reunion, misunderstandings compound miscommunications on top of misidentifications; chaos, of course, ensues.
Albers doesn’t stop at the “Looney Tunes” references. Acknowledging that the original “Comedy of Errors” relied on what had become standard comedic tropes in the Elizabethan world, he seems determined to give us whiplash trying to see all the pop culture referents he’s satirizing in order to maintain the feel as well as the language of the original.
Pureed in the name of Albers’ pastiche of TV sensibilities include the “Blue’s Clues”-style soundtrack (managed by musical merchant Rich Dart, whose on-stage balcony studio’s boings and zips form a slapstick language of sorts into which all of physical comedy sequences are translated); freeze frame special effects; and the scene with a paranoid girlfriend overanalyzing her man’s every move, a variant of which has been a building block of every sitcom.
The original “Comedy of Errors” was hilarious because it was familiar, and Albers’ rendition feels like channel surfing with a cable network that guarantees machine-gun repartee and spit-polish finish in every scene.
Actually, make that a hilariously anti-male cable network. The men of the Rep’s “Comedy” tend to bumble. Chronically. And the women in the play, especially one of the Antipholus’ wives (Adriana, played by Jennifer Roszell) and her sister (Luciana, played by Joey Parsons DRA ’99) get a kick out of the fact that a well-timed seductive whisper is all that’s necessary to lead around their men by the nose.
Albers’ Ephesus, where “Comedy of Errors” takes place, may be barbaric but, hey, it’s home: “The Comedy of Errors” seems to be inspired by the only-in-Disney Arabia of “Aladdin,” right down to the curved swords and the merchants selling the finest merchandise this side of the River Jordan. The result is spectacular — peacock feather-clad temptresses with unidentifiable accents shimmy past Moorish minarets and harem pants, fezzes, hippie-bright colors and open vests are worn as though they are going out of style, with due credit going to Alixandra Englund DRA ’05 for the costumes.
The problem with spectacle is that it does get our attention. As a result, we lose sight of some of Shakespeare’s more complex machinations (for instance, when Kremer reappears in the second half of the play, it takes us a moment to remember who he is — the sensory overload precludes keeping track of the quieter characters).
However, Albers manages to guide us through the doppelganger situational comedy admirably, neatly solving one of the major issues with staging Shakespeare’s shortest play — that we’re no better off than the denizens of Ephesus when confronted with identical twins — with subtle costuming details (one Antipholus wears a red vest, while the others’ is pink, for instance) and broad performance hints (nobody does confused like Johnson and Davis’ Dromios).
Broad appears to be the theme of this Rep performance. From enlisting audience members’ help in securing the wife of one of the Dromios to including a mime dressed like a pre-Ziggy David Bowie, Albers’ standard prescription seems to be slapstick, though sometimes he’s in danger of overdosing. By the end, for instance, the gag about Dromio getting hit no matter what he (they) does (do) has not only been milked for all its worth, it’s been killed and sold for leather.
And to some extent, all the physical comedy is rendered unnecessary by the quality of the original dialogue. The speech which got the loudest laughs — where Dromio of Syracuse (Davis) compares the well-endowed woman who thinks she’s his wife to a globe and edifies us with a geography lesson — was written in the original script.
In fact, by the end of the performance, both Dromios’ Porky Pig putz acts were getting them applause after every speech — nobody was waiting for scene changes any more. And that caliber of writing and delivery, more than the cartoon references, sumptuous costumes and comic exorcisms combined, is the reason to see this show.