If any of the “Pokemon Go” enthusiasts milling about the University of Colorado Boulder campus last Wednesday night were to stumble into the nearby Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, they likely would have been a bit confused.
But, perhaps oddly, the daze would not be due to the fact that the historic venue was largely bereft of any virtual monster masters attempting to catch ‘em all.
The real befuddlement would undoubtedly be curated by the peculiar dress and dialogue of the actors onstage. The puzzling stylings could inspire thoughts like: Is this a new production of “Midnight in Paris”? Am I seeing double? What’s the deal with that Andy Warhol-looking dude talking in that German accent? How come everyone’s speaking in that weird sing-songy tone?
These are all valid questions for anyone who stumbles unawares into “The Comedy of Errors,” now playing as a part of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder.
Directed by CSF veteran Geoffrey Kent, “Comedy” is not your typical take on the Bard. Unless, that is, you consider baguette-wielding debutantes, cross-dressing can-can dancers and a sneaky rendition of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” on the accordion to be typical Shakespearean fare. (Hint: You shouldn’t.)
All of those kooky concepts and plenty more are on full, unabashed display in Kent’s uber-zany production of Billy’s silliest, shortest play. And they’re an utter delight to watch.
Through a series of bold and genuinely unique artistic decisions, the “Comedy” team creates something wholly enjoyable and fresh — a sometimes difficult task for a work that has been drawn upon more times than you can, and will, say, “Now, which one is that again?” during the roughly two-hour performance.
Translated to the chapter stylization of the ’90s sitcom “Friends,” “Comedy” is “The one where two sets of identical twins cause a hubbub in an old Mediterranean city.” That’s probably a disgusting, dumbed-down and overly simplified take on what is undoubtedly a colossal work to most Shakespeare purists, but, hey — this one is actually, kinda, sorta, a little dumb. But it’s intentionally and expertly dumb, and that’s why we love it. (That’s not to mention that trying to explain the show in much more detail would require several diagrams and more column inches than this space will allow.) Just know this: There’s a gold chain, a jealous husband and a brilliantly tangled web of mixed-up identities.
Regardless, any summary of the original work won’t provide theatergoers a proper schematic for this year’s CSF production, as the show is a stark departure from the Bard’s blueprint. For starters, the action takes place in 1930s Paris, not the Greek city of Ephesus. The leading twins, Antiphola of Syracuse (Carolyn Holding) and Antiphola of Ephesus (Kelsey Didion) and their spritely drudges, Dromia of Syracuse (Lindsey Kyler) and Dromia of Ephesus (Emelie O’Hara) are played by women instead of men. Then, there’s the whole slew of silly, wildly appetizing stylizations that are peppered throughout the two acts, including a baguette battle, a lovelorn chef who appears to have been plucked off a can of Chef Boyardee, and a closing dance sequence set to Plastic Bertrand’s nonsensical 1977 classic “Ça Plane Pour Moi.” Yeah. All of the 21st-century manipulations underscore the show’s inherent ridiculousness and help remind us that, hey, Shakespeare is supposed to be fun, not just a high school English assignment.
Every member of the crew deserves a pat on the back — though an exaggerated, wind-up sucker punch somehow feels more appropriate — for a production tuned to just the right comedic pitch. From lighting designer Shannon McKinney’s well-placed bulbs, to sound designer Jason Ducat’s spunky, modern soundscape, to Kent and Benaiah Anderson’s intricately staged fight sequences, the entire production becomes a single, superbly executed comedic organ, continuously pumping life to all of the wily players. Costume designer Meghan Anderson Doyle’s outlandish outfits deserve special note for their eye-popping grandeur.
Onstage, the duo of Antipholas and their corresponding Dromias steer the humor train by serving up a steady diet of mighty, intoxicating sass. Steven Cole Hughes as the increasingly infuriated Adriano, along with his brother, Luciano (Christopher Joel Onken), are satisfying dead woods who provide the necessary comedic trampolines for their female counterparts. But it’s Sean Scrutchins as the somehow Warhol-esque Dr. Pinch and his army of face-masked minions who steal the greatest share of laughs during a sequence that could just as easily have featured dialogue compliments of Mel Blanc as that of The Bloke From Avon.
More than anything, CSF’s latest incarnation of “Comedy” provides gratifying, yet unconventional access to an at-times inaccessible playwright. It smartly reimagines a comedic vehicle that laid the foundation for a bank of 20th century slapstick forefathers, including The Marx Brothers, Moe, Larry and Curly, and pretty much the entire filmography of Leslie Nielsen. Kent taps into, but doesn’t quite exploit that vehicle’s banana-peel-slipping humor, and instead gently slaps a few more “I’m only speeding ’cause I really have to poop” stickers onto the bumper. Though it’s only running for about two more weeks, there are still about a half-dozen chances to catch the most sui generis show of the summer.
Four and a half stars out of five.