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Weekend Reviews / Theater Review

With Frugal Casting, Scheie's 'Comedy of Errors' Gets It Right

March 26, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The two sets of crazy mixed-up identical twins in "The Comedy of Errors"--Shakespeare's probable first foray into comedy--afford some nice, cheap prospects for four actors.

But why spread them around? The play's twice as much fun with half as many people.

In director Danny Scheie's jolly production, now entering the spring repertory at A Noise Within, Donald Sage Mackay plays Antipholus of Syracuse and his long-lost bro, Antipholus of Ephesus. Their respective servants, Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, are portrayed by Louis Lotorto.

The results are worth seeing if only for the scene where, behind the ancient Grecian version of the "Laugh-In" joke wall, a fleet-footed, quick-changing Lotorto gets into a fight with . . . himself.

Scheie has staged "The Comedy of Errors" several times, for Shakespeare Santa Cruz (where he served as artistic director) and companies in Berkeley and Seattle, among others. It's easy to see why. The concept has plenty of mileage on it. But do the bits work? Yessir. They work.

The production does take a while to gather steam. Not all the Noise Within regulars appear entirely comfortable within this universe of shtickery. Deborah Strang's trio of roles feels effortful; as Adriana, perplexed and shrewish wife of one of the twins, Anna C. Miller doesn't seem to be in a larkish mood.

But the twins are in fine hands. Costumed like a straw-hatted, bottom-of-the-bill 1920s vaudevillian, Mackay works effortlessly and well with Lotorto, dressed in bellboy duds, as if he were calling Philip Morris. There's a relaxed quality to their interplay, and to their delineation of the twins. One set speaks in a general-purpose Southern dialect; the other sports eyeglasses and talks like Phil Silvers. Or Joey Faye.

When the Syracuse duo sets foot in Ephesus, they're immediately mistaken for the local Antipholus and Dromio. From Roman laff-riot Plautus, who wrote "The Menaechmi," Shakespeare lifted an idea with roots in ancient Grecian comedy. It may be the Bard's most rudimentary contraption, but a sound premise is a sound premise.

The music in Scheie's production includes "Lady of Spain" and "Puff the Magic Dragon," played on accordion by Christopher Ervin Moore. Apollo Dukakis takes two roles, that of Second Merchant (costume designer Alex Jaeger dresses him like a Mongolian version of a Van Heusen shirt ad) and, delightfully, the Abbess Emilia.

*

Scheie's chief inspiration is that back wall, a skeletal wooden creation with windows on two levels, and a center set of doors. Everything this production does best takes place behind it. Yet for all the slapstick and sight gags, this staging--even with some over-earnest playing in the supporting ranks--doesn't feel frantic.

And Scheie's concept is fun. Allow me to drop a bombshell: That's all this text is, or should be, or probably can be, though there's a dash of sweetness, too. Scheie locates it, right at the end.

For the 1883 Riverside Shakespeare, Richard Grant White assessed "The Comedy of Errors" as a "mass of anachronism; but for this neither Shakespeare's audience nor he himself cared the snuff of a rushlight [candle]. Let us be at least as wise as they were."

Yes. Let's.

* "The Comedy of Errors," A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. April 8, 2 and 7 p.m.; April 13, 8 p.m.; April 14, 2 and 8 p.m.; May 2, 8 p.m.; May 4, 2 and 8 p.m.; May 13, 2 and 7 p.m.; May 16-17, 8 p.m.; May 25, 8 p.m.; May 26, 2 p.m.; other performances to be announced. Ends May 26. $16-$40. (323) 953-7795. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Richard Soto: Solinus, Courtesan

Deborah Strang: Egeon, Balthasar, Doctor Pinch

Donald Sage Mackay: Antipholus of Syracuse, Antipholus of Ephesus

Louis Lotorto: Dromio of Syracuse, Dromio of Ephesus

Jay Bell: Angelo, First Merchant, Messenger

Apollo Dukakis: Second Merchant, Emilia

Anna C. Miller: Adriana

Hisa Takakuwa: Luciana

Christopher Ervin Moore: Jailer, Officer, Headsman

Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Danny Scheie. Scenic design by Rick Ortenblad. Costumes by Alex Jaeger. Lighting by Rand Ryan. Stage manager Tricia Druliner.

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