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The Comedy of Errors

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Comedy of Errors is one of William Shakespeare's funniest comedies. How could it not be? It has the ultimate comic setup: Two sets of identical twins separated shortly after birth and raised apart, only to come together again 20 or so years later in a flurry of comic mix-ups. Outlandish? Yes. Unbelievable? Probably. Hilarious? Absolutely.

That's why it's particularly troubling that the Aquila Theatre Company production, in an attempt to update it or present it in a more daring way, has stripped the show of its most essential element: Its humor.

Oh, the jokes are still there, and they're still delivered by the production's seven actors in ways that suggest they were intended to be funny. But despite a few of the production's missteps where some humor does seep through, this Comedy of Errors is a strangely unenjoyable affair.

It's not for lack of trying - indeed, the production tries perhaps too hard for its laughs. There's a definite (and obviously) intentional clash of themes, with the low comedy twin Dromios (Louis Butelli) more or less modern American, the other twins, the Antipholuses (Mark Saturno), different degrees of British, the prim and proper English woman of Lisa Carter's Adriana, and her American 1950s teeny-bopper sister, Luciana, played by Mira Kingsley. The show is also colored (quite brightly), with costumes (by Sarah Hill), sets, and music determined to portray the show's locale, Ephesus, as the Turkish port city on which it was based.

But the show's director and adapter, Robert Richmond, could have demonstrated his determination to freshly revisit the show in ways far more effective than the ones he chose. He gets the production design right; he has created, with Peter Meineck, a highly colorful and adaptable collection of pieces that suggest the antic possibilities always inherent in the show. When faced with the dialogue, Richmond does far worse; he cuts out a fair amount of it to make room for songs or dance sections (courtesy of Anthony Cochrane) Shakespeare didn't intend, and begins the show with an entirely pantomimed dumb show that sets up the plot, but adds little more than running time. The show is already one of Shakespeare's shortest. This production is less padded than bloated, and little evidence remains that this truly is one of Shakespeare's most tightly-constructed, fast-paced comedies.

Of course, when Richmond's idea of comedy is the endless repetition of a hand gesture representing a plot-necessary piece of jewelry, the best interests of the show are obviously not being considered. The breathless, nearly improvisational delivery would not be out of place when applied to the actual script, but Richmond is intent on taking focus away from Shakespeare's words and putting them on his own staging ideas. Richmond is no Shakespeare.

Richmond's work is more maddening still because of the cast, a talented group of actors with boundless energy who are all so likable, you wish they weren't trapped in such a mess of a production. Butelli and Saturno create four distinct and highly comic characters, changing between them at a moment's notice. Mira Kingsley possesses a winning innocence, and Lisa Carter's sumptuous voice and regal grace and a much needed sense of class to the production.

The Comedy of Errors was never rocket science to begin with, but it never cried out for a dumbed down production on the order of this one. It doesn't happen often, but when the actors have a chance to breathe, they apparently trust the script. Why couldn't their director?

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Aquila Theatre Company
The Comedy of Errors
Through September 1
East 13th Street Theatre, 136 East 13th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Tele-Charge