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BWW Reviews: THE COMEDY OF ERRORS Tickles Every Funny Bone

One of Shakespeare's earliest works, and his shortest, The Comedy of Errors is an exciting first time collaboration between the illustrious and highly respected specialist group, Bell Shakespeare, and the State Theatre Company of South Australia. It is premiering in Adelaide before embarking on an Australian tour during the months ahead.

Presenting a production of one of Shakespeare's plays is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation when it comes to modernising the play. Purists will criticise you if you modernise it and others will criticise you if you present it in a form the purists will accept. This production, directed by Imara Savage, walks a fine line between the two, setting it in modern times, but adhering to the text and making use of the poetry in the Bard's writing.

Along with modern dress, and Pip Runciman's set, consisting of a row of eight translucent double doors across the rear of the stage, above which illuminated signs appear delineating the various locations, there is also a considerable degree of physicality, much of it traceable back to devices used in Commedia dell'Arte. It is, of course, based on plays by Plautus, so Shakespeare's references to Roman comedy are natural, with slapstick, pratfalls, and the like, being fitting parts of a production of this play.

It is set in Ephesus, and the action takes place within a day and a night, but the story began many years before. A rich merchant, Egeon, and his wife, Emilia, had twin sons. At the same time, a poor couple also had twin sons and, as they could not afford to raise them, the merchant bought them to be servants to his own sons. Travelling by sea, they were shipwrecked and the merchant, and one of each set of twins, was separated from his wife the other two boys. He found himself in Syracuse, where he brought them up. Now he is searching for his wife and the other son and his servant.

He has come to Ephesus, been arrested, and faces the death penalty, as it is illegal for merchants from Syracuse to enter Ephesus. His son and his servant are also in Ephesus seeking their twin brothers. Unbeknownst to any of them, this is where Emilia and the other two boys have lived since the shipwreck. The two boys raised by Egeon, having lost their twins, adopted their names (Reft of his brother, but retain'd his name--) and so became Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, thus, being identical twins, and now having the same names as Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, setting up the situation for all manner of mistaken identities.

The philandering Antipholus of Ephesus is married to Adriana, and Dromio of Ephesus is married to Nell, a monstrously fat kitchen maid. Those of Syrcuse are both single and, when mistaken for their twins, this leads to comic exchanges when those from Ephesus are refused entry to their own home. Adriana's sister, Luciana, is surprised to find that Antipholus is making declarations of love to her, not realising that he is not her sister's husband, but his twin. Even the servants and masters mix up one another, so alike are each set of twins.

The play opens with Egeon being interrogated by the voice of Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, who Anthony Taufa gives the voice of Marlon Brando's Godfather. Eugene Gilfedder is marvellous as Egeon, a man at the end of his rope, facing the threat of death as a relief, an end to his suffering. With this poignant scene over the comedy begins in earnest.

Nathan O'Keefe and Septimus Caton are Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus, respectively, and Renato Musolino and Hazem Shammas are their respective Dromios. The mix-ups between these four alone is enough to keep anybody entertained, without the hilarity that the rest of the play brings with it. O'Keefe and Musolino are both well known to Adelaide audiences and they live up to any expectations one may have had. Caton and Shammas are equally excellent and so these four roles, that rely so heavily on the similarities between the twins, works superbly through the accurate mirroring of each pair of actors.

Each Antipholus dresses alike but, where O'Keefe's character is the more staid, Caton's struts around in an open shirt, and so we can easily recognise each of these although, it seems, no other characters pick that difference. The physical appearance of each being so alike, it is often only when the two Dromios are next to each other that one can be entirely sure which is which. Effectively, it is a double, double-act of ludicrous proportions that relies on these four very impressive individual performances, and some great ensemble work.

The confusion, and the comedy, increases with the introduction of two women to the situation. Elena Carapetis plays Adriana, the wife of Antipholus, and Jude Henshall plays her younger sister, Luciana. Carapetis gives us a very vocal, petulant woman when angry, whilst Henshall takes the term blonde bimbo to another level. Not only do we get lots of laughs from their mistaking who is who within the four men but, when Luciana tells Adriana that Antipholus has expressed his love for her, there some strained relations between the two. They don't miss a trick in finding the humour in both the text and the characters.

Adding two more men generates more laughter. Taufa also plays Balthazar, a merchant, who gets mixed up in the confusion as he is owed money by Angelo, the goldsmith, played by Demitrios Sirilas, who has supplied Antipholus with a gold chain, for which he has not been paid. Taufa makes Balthazar a man who you would not want to cross, and Sirilas, covered in gold chains, look like a pimp, people that you would not be surprised to find in a port, which is what Ephesus is, of course. Right there we have another great double act, but we have not finished.

A courtesan, whom Antipholus turns to as a dinner companion when he is refused entry to his home because, as far as his wife is concerned, he is already there, is played by Suzannah McDonald. She combines with Adriana and Luciana, ganging up on the wayward Antipholus, the three now finding another layer of mistaken identities, and the laughs continue. McDonald goes to the other extreme as she also plays the Abbess, although the lisp she adopts for this role does make the already difficult Shakespearean language a little harder again to follow and might be better dropped. Gilfedder also returns as Dr. Pinch, who promptly diagnoses Antipholus as being possessed, and gets his beard singed for his trouble.

This is a farce, and so all of those doors just have to be used for a suitably silly chase scene, although why everybody seems to end up dancing drunkenly in a club until they vomit is not clear, especially as they then carry on with the chase again. The weird and wonderful collection of characters created by the cast, as disparate as they may at first appear, all somehow fit together thanks to The Combined performances of a very solid cast, who carry out all of this carry on without the slightest hesitation anywhere in the delivery of the dialogue. That is no mean feat.

This is a successful first collaboration between these two companies and, hopefully, not the last. The audience left the theatre with universal smiles; just what was needed on a cold, wet and windy night.

Reviewed 4th July 2013

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From This Author Barry Lenny