You haven’t seen Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors till you’ve seen it “Burlesque On Brand” style, courtesy of director extraordinaire Michael Michetti at A Noise Within.
Reconceived as a Roaring Twenties burlesque/vaudeville show, this Comedy Of Errors starts off with a bang by introducing one by one the real-life actors playing 1920s versions of themselves playing the characters the Bard concocted for his shortest and most farcical comedy. Got that? Entering through a spray of pink feather fans held by a trio of flapper-esque show girls are Errol Flynn lookalike leading man Bruce Turk, sidekick Jerry Kernion in Lou Costello mode, glamour girl Abby Craden at her vampiest, soprano soubrette Annie Abrams, overage plus size drag queen Gibby Brand, dialect king P.J. Ochlan, ventriloquist Rene Ruiz, assorted others, and finally those showgirls themselves, led by Betty Boop-voiced Lauren Robyn, each and every one ready, willing and eager to give their all—and then some—to make Shakespeare come alive with slapstick glee and pratfalls galore.
The story hasn’t changed since it was first staged in the 1590s. It still begins with merchant Egeon (Michael Stone Forrest) awaiting execution for the crime of trespassing in enemy territory as he recounts his tragic tale to Duke Solinas (William Dennis Hunt), the sad-but-true story of a father separated from his wife, their twin sons, and their sons’ twin slaves. As Egeon tells it, the ship all six were voyaging on ran into a tempest, prompting Egeon to lash himself to the main-mast with one son and one slave boy, while wife Emilia tied herself to the mizzen with the other two. Unfortunately for Egeon and family, a gigantic rock split the ship in half, and though no lives were lost, Egeon and his two small companions and Emilia and her twosome were rescued by two separate ships and taken to two separate lands. Now grown to adulthood and desirous of reuniting the two halves of his family, the adult Antipholus of Syracuse and his slave Dromio have departed on a quest to find their brothers. When the young men do not return, Egeon himself sets out in search of them—only to find himself under arrest, Ephesus being off-limits to Syracusans.
Since Egeon’s expository soliloquy does tend to get a bit convoluted, productions often look for ways to make it visual. Open Fist’s 2008 rendition used shadow puppets. A Noise Within goes them one step further by having Egeon show a 1920s-style silent flick (directed to grainy black-and-white perfection by Ali Murtaza), complete with era-appropriate overacting, title cards, and live honkytonk accompaniment by composer/co-sound designer David Bickford stage right on upright piano.
The projector and screen removed and without further ado, the two adult Antipholuses (or should that be Antipholi?) make their first appearances. First to enter is Antipholus of Syracuse (Turk), arriving in Ephesus with his slave Dromio (Kernion), whom he sends off to deposit money at the inn. Almost immediately, Dromio’s dead ringer shows up, denying any knowledge of the money and inviting Antipholus home to dinner where, says Dromio II, his master’s wife is waiting. This is of course news to bachelor Antipholus, who does not realize that this Dromio (Kernion in a dual role) is in reality Dromio of Ephesus, slave to Antipholus of Ephesus (Turk again), who is married to Adriana (Craden).
Bachelor Antipholus soon finds himself falling for his “sister-in-law” Luciana (Abrams). Meanwhile, married Antipholus can’t get his honest-to-goodness wife to let him into their house, prompting him to head off for dinner with a courtesan (Robyn). One of the Dromios gets pursued by a rotund kitchen maid named Nell (Brand). Bachelor Antipholus is given a golden chain by a goldsmith named Angelo (Ochlan) who says he will return later for his money. Angelo does indeed return, but ends up speaking to married Antipholus who has no idea what Angelo is talking about and finds himself under arrest. There’s also a conjurer named Dr. Pinch (Ochlan again), hired to exorcise demons from bachelor Antipholus and his Dromio, and an Abbess (Brand, once again in drag), who offers them sanctuary.
Confused? No matter. The simplicity of the basic conceit (two sets of twins mistaken for each other) and the fact that this is virtually Shakespeare’s only play sans subplots makes this one of his easiest to follow. Add to that the veritable circus of delights Michetti and company have up their sleeves and you come up one of the best Comedy Of Errors ever.
Using a single pair of actors to play two pairs of twins is CGF child’s play on film these days, as proven by Armie Hammer’s dual performances in The Social Network, but The Comedy Of Error’s last scene, one which reunites all four protagonists on stage for the play’s grand finale, would seem to make this an impossibility on stage. Michetti finds an nifty way to make this happen, thereby giving Turk and Kernion twice as much stage time, twice as many lines to learn, and (in Kernion’s case) twice as many pratfalls to execute, tasks at which both actors do bang-up work. As for those who might confuse the two sets of truly identical twins, married Antipholus sports a white three-cornered hat, bachelor Antipholus a smaller, darker one, and Dromio of Ephesus dons a pair of Harold Lloyd horn-rimmed spectacles while his Syracusan brother presumably wears contacts lenses.
A Noise Within vamp-in-residence Craden is a divinely seductive Adriana, who together with Bickford turns a Shakespeare soliloquy into a talk-sung rap that earns cheers. Abrams shows off her glorious soprano in the introductory scene, then charms in a virtual reprise of the ditzy blonde role she played in Reprise’s (no pun intended) revival of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, a show of which this particular Comedy Of Errors is a kissing cousin.
Scenie-winner Forrest and A Noise Within treasure Hunt have a veritable field day milking laugh after laugh from Egeon’s initial confrontation with Duke Solinas. Brand makes for two of the most improbable “women” ever as the saucy Nell and a Sister Bertrille headgear-sporting abbess, and takes a pie in the face with the best of them. (Brand gets to end Act One with a punch line that more than justifies its theft from Romeo And Juliet.)
Paul D. Masterson is a hoot in the dual roles of Balthazar and 2nd Merchant, and executes arguably the fastest mid-scene costume change on record, to considerable audience glee. Ochlan’s side job as a dialect coach serves him well in the show’s opening sequence during which he dazzles with half a dozen or so different spot-on accents, and later as a hilariously Italian Angelo und ein German Doctor Pinch. Actor-venriloquist Ruiz gives matching gems of performances as the 1st Merchant and his pint-sized alter ego, and later in Michetti’s brilliant deus ex machina denouement. Andrew Dits has loads of fun as a mustachioed, muscled Officer and Robyn is absolutely delectable as a Boop-Oop-A-Doopy courtesan. Andy Stokan, Christine Breihan, Douglas Rory Milliron, Gwenmarie White, and Sarah-lucy Hill complete the cast in splendid fashion in a variety of roles.
Providing a running musical “soundtrack” is the terrific Bickford in silent flick mode, not only on piano but creating slapstick sound effects with a slide whistle, a washboard, a car horn, cowbell, and an instrument called a bell tree, whose glissando accompanies every reference to Angelo’s chain—a grand total of forty-seven times, if Bickford doesn’t accidentally miss one of them.
Kurt Boetcher’s fanciful scenic design features an upstairs window used Laugh In style to considerable comic effect. Angela Balough Calin’s costumes are a perfect mix of burlesque and Shakespearean, and Nichole Renee Lumpkin gets thumbs up too for the costumes she created for the silent movie sequence. Elizabeth Harper’s lighting design contributes greatly to Michetti’s vision as do co-sound designer Andrew Villaverde’s music and effects.
Milliron is assistant director, Kelsey MacKilligan costume assistant, Maya M. Rodgers stage manager, Bernice E. Mendez assistant stage manager, Alexandra Dunn properties master and puppet maker (a round of cheers for the latter), Meghan Kennedy production manager, Adam Lillibridge technical director, Ronnie J. Clark master electrician, and Katie Polebaum scenic artist.
Though there will probably never be a “definitive” The Comedy Of Errors, Michael Michetti’s is indubitably the definitive Burlesque C-Of-E. Purists may carp, but I’d venture to guess that any Shakespeare-phobes who happen to find themselves in the audience will exit the theater singing the praises of the Bard. Good Old Will has never been funnier or more accessible than he is these days at A Noise Within.
A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale.
March 23, 2011
Photos: Craig Schwartz