Shakespeare ... with sound effects?
New Village Arts’ zany and cartoon-ish “Comedy of Errors” gets a Hollywood makeover that doesn’t quite click
By Donnie Matsuda
It’s a tricky thing, that Comedy of Errors.
As one of William Shakespeare’s earliest plays, it is somewhat the “black sheep” in The Bard’s family of plays as it doesn’t contain the same amount of pomp, circumstance, and substance as most of his later works. It is also his shortest play and his most farcical of comedies, relying mostly on oddball characters, outrageous antics and slapstick scenarios of the most absurd kind. But, despite all the silly shenanigans, the play still bears the stamp of Shakespeare in both its masterful language and brilliant word-play.
The Comedy of Errors tells the tale of two sets of identical twins (Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus and their man servants Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus) who are accidentally separated at birth. When Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus with his manservant by his side, things get complicated and confusing as they are frequently mistaken for their twins: Antipholus of Ephesus and his manservant, Dromio of Ephesus, respectively. For instance, Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, mistakes his twin brother (the one from Syracuse) as her husband and things become awkward when he begins making sexual advances at Adriana’s sister, Luciana. Meanwhile, the real Antipholus of Ephesus faces problems when he is unable to pay for a gold necklace that was actually sold to his twin. And so the preposterous cases of mistaken identity play out over and over again to the point that even master mistakes manservant and manservant mistakes master.
While the genius of Shakespeare remains intact here, the slapstick comedy feels fresh and open to interpretation. So, it may come as no surprise that recent revivals try to contemporize the time and place of the piece in an attempt to make it more accessible and fun for modern-day audiences.
Director Justin Lang and the New Village Arts Ensemble should be commended for having the ingenious idea of setting this crazy comedy in Hollywood, California during the golden age of the television sitcom. It is a brilliant concept in theory, but unfortunately, it doesn’t quite play out so well in the flesh. The major problem with their revival is that the look of their slick 1950’s television broadcast doesn’t jive at all with the language of Shakespeare’s richly metaphoric and archaic rhyme schemes. And the frequent attempts to make it feel like a good fit only make it more glaringly obvious that this concept is about as gratifying as trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.
Despite the mismatched premise, Lang’s production is very fast-paced and incredibly well-acted. His spry direction goes off without a hitch (though we could do without the cheesy LooneyTunes inspired sound effects) and his actors are so poised and polished, they tend to speed through their dialogue faster than a bullet train. But, above all, the members of the New Village Arts ensemble are super savvy actors - equally adept at over-the-top characterizations as they are with broad physical comedy.
With identical hair and costumes, Kyle Lucy and Adam Brick are virtual carbon copies of each other as Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, respectively. These two stooges are masters of comedy and deliver firecracker performances that are at times hilarious, at times silly, but always engaging. As the Antipholi (?), Max Macke and John DeCarlo don’t look anything alike, except for their similarly stout body types. But if one can suspend disbelief for the play’s speedy two hour run time, they each give solid performances and are convincing enough in their delightfully incredulous roles.
Kristianne Kurner as the brazen Adriana and Amanda Sitton as the endearing Luciana both shine in their Lucy and Ethel inspired roles. Without a doubt, they are the most successful at melding their “I Love Lucy” characters with Shakespeare’s tricky tongue-twisters and their winning performances give some vibrancy and verve to an otherwise oddball show.
Performance-wise, there is not a weak link in the entire 19-member ensemble cast, which includes fine supporting performances by Manny Fernandes as the sunglass-sporting, wheelchair-bound Duke Solinus, Jack Missett as the aged Egeon and clownish medicine man Dr. Pinch, Frances Regal as a chopstick-wearing, Chinese doll Courtesan, and Dana Case as an aloof, cigarette-smoking stage manager (among other roles). Chris Renda as Balthasar and Durwood Murray as The Officer round out the rest of the adult company.
This production also includes some young tweenage actors (most members of NVA’s Junior Ensemble) who are quite good in their cameo roles. Most notable is a spunky Jonah Gercke who is somewhat miscast in the role of gold seller, Angelo. He is a terrific talent and shows an incredible amount of acting potential already at his young age.
All things considered, New Village Arts’ Comedy doesn’t go off without a few errors of its own. But it is the strong acting chops of its sterling cast and the brilliance of the Bard’s own writing that remains the saving grace of this misfit, if a bit misguided, farce.
Things to know before you go: The Comedy of Errors plays at the New Village Arts Theatre through March 4, 2012. Running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and Sundays at 2pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 433-3245 or visit www.newvillagearts.org.