Open Fist’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors may be the most fun I’ve ever had at a Shakespeare play, and that’s saying something for a Shakespeare-phobe like me. Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t really hate Shakespeare, and I have had fun at a Shakespeare play … a few times, at least.  The trouble is that the Bard’s 16th Century English and tangled plotlines often go right over my head, or at least past my ears without really sinking in. Not so with Open Fist’s Comedy Of Errors. I’m not quite sure how they did it, but director Ron West and his cast of zanies have somehow clarified Shakespeare for me, archaic speech, convoluted storyline and all.  The play’s 90 minutes (clearly some judicious snipping took place) just zipped by and I actually understood what was happening most of the time! I had a ball!

West has set The Comedy Of Errors in “the beach community of Ephesus, circa 1964,” which puts it smack dab in Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello-Beach Boys-Beach Blanket Bingoland.  The show opens with a bunch of beach partygoers doing the twist and drinking blue martinis to the sounds of a rock guitar.

Soon we are listening to arrestee Aegeon’s tale of the tragic separation of two sets of twins.

His story in brief, courtesy of Wikipedia: Aegeon faces execution as a Syracusan trespassing in Ephesus, unable to pay a thousand marks’ fine. He tells his sad story. In his youth, he married and had twin sons. On the same day, a poor woman also gave birth to twin boys, and he purchased these as slaves to his sons. Soon afterwards, the family made a sea voyage, and was hit by a tempest. Aegeon lashed himself to the main-mast with one son and one slave, while his wife lashed herself to the mizzen with the others. The wife was rescued by one boat, Aegeon by another. Aegeon never again saw his wife, or the children with her. Recently, his son Antipholus of Syracuse, now grown, and his son’s slave Dromio of Syracuse, left Syracuse on a quest to find their brothers. When Antipholus of Syracuse did not return, Aegeon set out in search of him. 

As Aegeon (William B. Jackson) tells his tale to Duke Salinas (Chris Erric Maddox), the sad events are illustrated by a series of shadow puppet blackouts on the wall behind him, including two pregnant shadow figures popping out two sets of twins, and even those who “don’t get” Shakespearean English will have no trouble following Aegeon’s tale.

We soon meet the two adult Antipholuses (or should that be Antipholi?).  Antipholus of Syracuse (Mathew Brenher) arrives in Ephesus with his slave Dromio (Claire Mills), then sends Dromio off to deposit some money at the inn.  Almost immediately, Dromio is back, denying any knowledge of the money and inviting him home to dinner where, says Dromio, his master’s wife is waiting. This is news to bachelor Antipholus, who does not realize that this Dromio (Jordana Berliner) is in reality Dromio of Ephesus, slave to Antipholus of Ephesus (Dylan Fergus), who is married to Adriana (Kim Swennen).

This is the first of many “errors” which lead to much comedy indeed. Never has the title of a Shakespearean play been more accurate!

Bachelor Antipholus finds himself falling for his “sister-in-law” Luciana (Sephanie Terronez). Married Antipholus can’t get his (real) wife to let him into their house and has dinner with a courtesan (Sarah Buster).  One of the Dromios is pursued by a chubby kitchen maid named Nell (Ben Malloy).  Bachelor Antipholus is given a golden chain by a goldsmith named Angelo (Caitlin Renee Campbell), who says he will return later for his money. Angelo does this, but speaks to married Antipholus who has no idea what Angelo is talking about and ends up under arrest.  There’s also a conjurer named Dr. Pinch (Conor Lane), hired to exorcise demons from bachelor Antipholus and his Dromio, and an Abbess (Nicola Hersh), who offers them sanctuary.

Confused?  No matter.  The simplicity of the basic conceit (two sets of twins mistaken for each other) makes any confusion irrelevant to one’s enjoyment of the play.

Director West ups the slapstick physical comedy quotient to hilarious effect.  There’s a food and utensil attack, we see the two Dromios moving simultaneously (and identically) side by side (one inside the house, the other outside), and one of the Dromios gets used as a battering ram to break down married Antipholus’s door. There’s a funny sequence where bachelor Antipholus attempts to seduce married Antipholus’s sister-in-law Luciana by lifting weights and flexing his muscles. When the Dromio who is pursued by the “spherical” Nell describes her body in terms of countries, he takes on many accents including a very funny Spanish lisp. Adriana turns to downing a dish of ice cream in an attempt to forget her sorrows, and one of the Dromios gets beaten repeatedly … with a swimming pool noodle. Dr. Pinch attempts to exorcise demons with a garlic necklace, bongo drums, and a stuffed attack animal.

West’s cast is so uniformly good that it’s hard to pick favorites, but the lovely Swennen is particularly adept at making Shakespearean English sound somehow contemporary, Lane has great fun (and is very funny) as the crazy conjurer, and Buster gets the biggest laughs of all with her black spandexed Latin spitfire of a courtesan, straight out of West Side Story.  Under their matching short red wigs, Mills and Berliner are virtually identical, and in perfect synch, adding to the confusion.  Brenher’s English accent at first seems out of place, but his Antipholus is from out of town, after all, and Shakespeare does have a special ring when spoken London-style.  Handsome Fergus proves that a soap opera hunk (he’s Noah Bennett on Passions) can be equally adept at the Bard.  Completing the talented Open Fist cast are Andrew Schlessinger, Matt Oehlberg, and Tara Bopp.

Jeff G. Rack’s set design (in shades of beige and brown) is simple but effective.  Ellen Monocroussos’s lighting is equally good at setting the mood. Rosalie Alvarez’s costumes are a delightful mix of 60s beach attire, and Cricket S. Myers has provided her usual excellent sound design, with its mix of 60s songs and sounds.

I’m not sure what Shakespeare purists will have to say about West’s slapstick approach to The Comedy Of Errors.  To a Shakespeare “impurist” like myself, it proved to be more fun than a barrel of (twin) monkeys and makes me want to see more of the Bard!

Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 9, 2008

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