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Shakespeare in Toontown

Cartoony gestures and emphatic body language sparkle -- and clarify the action -- in Aquila Theatre Company's 'Comedy of Errors.'

October 21, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — Call it "Cartoon of Errors."

Aquila Theatre Company's delectable rendition of Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors," at La Jolla Playhouse, is so precisely choreographed -- or make that animated -- that it becomes an in-the-flesh cartoon.

Inspired by the Tintin cartoons created by the Belgian artist Herge during the 1930s, it's set in a '30s Middle Eastern fantasyland. Those unfamiliar with Tintin might be reminded of Indiana Jones movies.

Think safari hats, colorful tents, belly dancers and Middle Eastern rhythms as well as the rapidly spreading high-society steps of the tango. And actors who use emphatically defined and repeated body language in order to drive home the gags.

Does all of this obliterate Shakespeare? To the contrary. The text is well articulated and almost crystal clear in meaning. All of the cartoon-style gesturing essentially illustrates the text, supplementing the spoken word.

Although these performers aren't using American Sign Language, the combination of gesture and speech is crazily reminiscent of L.A.'s Deaf West style.

In the Shakespeare text, two sets of identical twin infants are separated from their respective brothers. One set of twins consists of two boys both named Antipholus; the other set is made up of two boys named Dromio. One Antipholus-and-Dromio master-and-servant duo grows up in Syracuse, Sicily. The other pair, with the same names and relationship, lives in Ephesus, Turkey. When the boys from Syracuse wander east into Ephesus in search of their siblings, many mishaps ensue.

In Robert Richmond's adaptation and staging for Aquila -- a New York-based company that combines British and American talent -- Richard Willis plays both Antipholuses and Louis Butelli plays both Dromios (although amusing program bios are provided for their faux "brothers," who are supposedly playing the Ephesus twins).

As the Syracuse Antipholus, Willis is a dark-bespectacled, mild-mannered, Middle Atlantic-speaking fellow. As his Ephesus-raised twin, he shucks the glasses and becomes a wild-eyed, unbuttoned playboy with a lower-class English accent.

Butelli likewise uses eyeglasses for his Syracusan Dromio and loses them for the Ephesian. His accents also descend in class status as he becomes the Ephesus twin, although his lower-class accent is more American than British.

The accents are so different that one could be excused for asking why no one realizes that these are different men entirely. But if you ask too many probing questions while watching "Comedy of Errors," you'll make the error of missing the comedy.

Lisa Carter plays the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus as a blond, stylishly gowned, high-heeled society dame. As her sister, Lindsay Rae Taylor wears glasses like those of the new Antipholus, to whom she's attracted. She also wears saddle shoes and is a head shorter than her glamorous sibling.

Only three other actors -- Heather Murdock, Andrew Schwartz and Alex Webb -- play the other roles. That's at least three roles apiece. But the madcap movements, as well as the quick-change costumes, are so sharply delineated that the effect is fizzy, never fuzzy.

Anthony Cochrane's wildly eclectic recorded score and the uncredited choreography are vital. At the beginning, the play's elaborate back story is explained in a dumb show in which the actors use the jerky movements of puppets. Throughout the play, props are thrown and twisted and twirled with apparent abandon, but the results are never sloppy. Full-scale dance routines break out more than once.

This aggressive performance style isn't new, of course; much of it is derived from commedia dell'arte as well as Hollywood cartoons. And this production doesn't pull off the final scene, when the simultaneous presence of both Antipholuses and both Dromios is called for, quite as ingeniously as A Noise Within did in its 2001 "Comedy of Errors," which also cast only one actor for each set of twins.

But the continuous snap, crackle and pop of the Aquila production is especially well suited for this play's go-for-broke plot and overall giddiness.

Even those who think they have seen one too many "Comedy of Errors" may want to think again.


'The Comedy of Errors'

Where: La Jolla Playhouse,

La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays,

8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays,

2 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.

Ends: Nov. 16

Price: $39-$49

Contact: (858) 550-1010

Running time: 2 hours

Louis Butelli...the two Dromios

Richard Willis...the two Antipholuses

Lisa Carter...Adriana

Alex Webb...Egeon/Balthasar/Pinch

Heather Murdock...Nell/Courtesan/Emilia

Andrew Schwartz...Duke/Angelo/Gaoler

Lindsay Rae Taylor...Luciana

The Aquila Theatre production of Shakespeare's comedy. Director Robert Richmond. Production design Robert Richmond, Peter Meineck. Lighting design Peter Meineck. Music Anthony Cochrane. Stage manager Monica A. Cuoco.

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