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THEATER REVIEW : Shakespeare Festival Off to a Light Start : Some male and female roles are reversed in 'Comedy of Errors' and 'The Tempest,' adding to the less than subtle humor.


The Ojai Shakespeare Festival opened its 13th consecutive season last weekend with the first of this year's two productions: a rollicking version of "The Comedy of Errors." The second play, "The Tempest," opens Friday night; both will run in repertory through Aug. 13.

There are some changes this year. For the first time since 1989, artistic director Paul Backer is making use of a second director, and both plays are being cast with some male and female roles reversed. For example, Prospero, the magician in "The Tempest" becomes "Prospera."

Some people--directors Backer and Taylor Kasch included--may find all sorts of human truths revealed in the procedure. Cynics, on the other hand, might suggest that it's easier to find capable women to play these roles than men.

Either way, it's probably a harmless enough gimmick. Its cleverness (if that's the appropriate word) will be most evident to those familiar with the plays as Shakespeare wrote them. And the women of "The Comedy of Errors" are, in fact, quite good. (Who knows? If this works out, maybe we'll see future productions of "Hamletta" and "Henrietta V").

Elizabethan humor was not always subtle, seldom less so than in "The Comedy of Errors." The audience is expected to allow that twins, both named Antipholous, were shipwrecked along with their twin slaves, both named Dromio. If you accept that, you'll have no trouble believing that all four--and their parents--escaped the wreck, and both daughters went their separate ways, each accompanied by her slave.

When all six wind up in the same town 23 years later, unaware of the fact . . . well, you can just imagine the low-brow hilarity when Dromio of Ephesus mistakes Antipholous of Syracuse for his own mistress. Antipholous of Syracuse's husband mistakes Antipholous of Ephesus for his own wife, and so on.

To complicate things further, director Kasch has shifted the action to present-day Ojai while retaining the characters' names. Of course, in artsy Ojai, you might expect to find people named Antipholous and Egeon (the girls' merchant father) wandering around.

There are clever touches, first among them the opening scene, a "Dump the Tower" wine and cheese mixer where much of the back story is revealed by Egeon to the party-goers, most of whom are far more interested in the simultaneous fashion show than in Egeon's ramblings.

Later, Dr. Pinch, a sort of Elizabethan psychiatrist brought in to cure the presumed insanity of one of the Antipholouses, is portrayed by Kurt Christenson as a Jimmy Swaggart-style evangelist. (Locals who recognize the actor as a real-life Lutheran minister will be even more amused.)

Director Kasch borrows from the Marx Brothers for a funny scene in which the two Dromios confront one another unexpectedly through a doorway, mistaking it for a mirror and mimicking each other's actions.

The acting is fine, with Sarah Meaney and J.J. Snyder as Antipholous of Ephesus and Syracuse; Becky Stier and Jaye Hersh as their respective rambunctious servants; Tony Richards is seen as Syracuse's husband, Ardiano; with Steve Sobel as his brother, Luciano; Wayne Francis is Egeon; and Joyce McWilliams turns in a nice cameo as the girls' mother, now Abbess, Emilia.

This is Shakespeare's briefest play, and director Kasch and his cast ran through it in less than two hours--including intermission--last Sunday.

It's a lot of fun, though you should sit as close as possible to the stage so as to not miss any of the snappy dialogue, which, despite the actors' best efforts, tends to dissipate into the hot Ojai afternoon.


"The Comedy of Errors"

* WHERE: On the green at Libbey Park, Ojai Avenue and Signal Street, Ojai.

* WHEN: Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m.; closes Aug. 13.

* HOW MUCH: $8 general admission on Saturdays; $7 students and seniors.

* FYI: Unreserved lawn seating; blankets or low folding chairs recommended. Call 646-WILL.

"The Tempest"

* WHERE: Libbey Bowl, Ojai Avenue and Signal Street, Ojai.

* WHEN: Friday through Sunday evenings at 7:30, plus Thursday, Aug. 10. Closes Aug. 13.

* HOW MUCH: Thursday, general admission $10; students and seniors, $8. Friday and Sunday, general admission $12; students and seniors, $10. Saturday, general admission $15; students and seniors $12.

* FYI: Unreserved bench seating. Call 646-WILL.

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