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Tickling the funny groan

Comedy's focus on slapstick ignores deeper themes

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William Shakespeare plays farce and furious in his debut play The Comedy of Errors, a flurry of mistaken identities, mishaps, misunderstandings and mayhem.

Director Ron Jenkins, in his Shakespeare in the Ruins debut, picks up the comic challenge, choosing to accentuate the farce rather than subdue it. So the feces fly.

Revenge is taken in the form of a wet willie. A magician pulls a long rainbow streamer out of the mouth of a pistol-carrying guard and actors are literally climbing the walls of the former Trappist monastery in St. Norbert in search of cheap laughs.

This parade of silliness grows tiresome even with a running time of only 105 minutes, plus intermission. The Keystone Kops-like chases, broad knockabout humour and the kind of raunchy jokes that cracked up Elizabethan audiences is thin entertainment today. Jenkins fails to find the pleasing balance between the funny business and the play's heart, the reunion of a family. Even that highly anticipated reconciliation is undermined by a directorial sleight of hand (breach of faith?) during one of the most improbable family reunions you'll ever see.

The lark in the park seen at Wednesday's preview, which was accompanied by rain showers, opened seriously with a handcuffed Aegeon facing a death sentence for trespassing in enemy territory, the city of Ephesus, in search of his long-lost sons. After the grief-stricken prisoner recites his tale of woe -- in a shipwreck he lost his wife, twin baby sons both named Antipholus and infant sons he bought as slaves and named both Dromio -- which has brought him illegally to Ephesus.

The Duke agrees to give him the rest of the day to raise the money to buy his freedom. The bumbling actors then line up, each with a one-word sign on a stick, but only on the third attempt can the audience read, "once upon a time in Ephesus." It wouldn't have been a surprise if the cartoonish moment was followed by the ending of the Bugs Bunny theme song, "On with the show, this is it."

Then we meet Antipholus and his other twin brother Antipholus, but never together until the climax. Antipholus of Syracuse has been searching for his sibling with his man-servant Dromio and lands in Ephesus, the home of the other lost twin and his servant. The preposterous plot leads to all the errors: people thinking they are in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. Soon, one Antipholus is astonished by the surprising hospitality of the townspeople while the other is enraged by the hostility of his hometown.

Jenkins' contribution to The Bard's ball of confusion is having Toby Hughes play both similarly outfitted masters while casting Tom Keenan as Dromio of Ephesus and Kevin Klassen as the Dromio of Syracuse. The audience can tell which is which, as Syracuse Antipholus wears glasses while the Ephesus Antipholus has a feather in his cap and a different coloured ascot. Hughes is effective in the double role, portraying the former as a bit of a sweet-natured rube and the latter as a worldly, sharp-tongued cad.

Having the look-alikes together tricks everyone, including the discombobulated Dromios, whose attempts to serve two masters reaps a heap of comic pain. These stooge slaves are a whole lot of fun to watch as brought to life by Klassen, who performs an outstanding, "How fat is she," routine atop a wall, while Keenan's comic shtick unerringly hits the comic mark.

Adrianna, the scorned wife of Ephesus Antipholus, begins in a shrewish rage at her husband, but actor Charlene Van Buekenhout never gets off that one note. Laura Olafson brings an appealing coyness to Adrianna's bookish and faithful sister Luciana, who thinks her brother-in-law is hot for her.

Two familiar faces in Winnipeg theatre make surprising SIR debuts in The Comedy of Errors. Leading lady Jennifer Lyon is unrecognizable as the well-padded kitchen wench Luce and the deep-voiced Duke with his Napoleon chapeau pulled low. Terri Cherniack, best known for many seasons of serious dramatic roles, goes for the comic gusto as never before whether as a gallumping guard or a tipsy Balthazar. Rob McLaughlin adds some magic to his portrayal of the mysterious Dr. Pinch, while Rodrigo Beilfuss rounds out the local cast.

Unfortunately, The Comedy of Errors makes so few demands of its audience that it delivers little. The play's deeper themes of disorientation and loss of identity scarcely touch us in a production that prefers to go for belly laughs.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2014 D3

History

Updated on Friday, June 6, 2014 at 9:41 AM CDT: adds photo

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