All ends well

It's refreshing to be reminded by the Undermain Theatre that Shakespeare wrote comedies, too. And that, slain in the right lunatic spirit, they're damned funny in the least complicated way possible.

Shakespeare's plays continue to bear nutritious fruit, surprising when you consider that they are raided in and out of season. Whether it be new costumes, new accents, or a new sexual subtext, there's always some artificial, inhospitable clime induced by stage directors in major American cities in an attempt to remind us that, although we hear these nuggets of insight ad nauseam in the high and low arts, we often don't listen because of that starched familiarity.

His comedies suffer far more than his tragedies. Shakespearean language winds around contemporary audiences and touches them in more oblique ways than the mixed classes who originally consumed them at the Old Globe. Lust, envy, and revenge translate more immediately through the centuries, perhaps because audiences are taken inside the skins of a Hamlet or a Macbeth to feel the loss of dignity and life. Audiences leave a piece of themselves at a tragedy.

A comedy--or at least, a successful comedy--will follow you out of the theater and make a sagacious companion for days afterward. Comedies restore something in us, or more accurately, reinforce our humanity. They make us feel larger by recasting our own foibles as ridiculous maladies that befall the poor, unsuspecting saps on whom we've paid to eavesdrop.

Ergo, late 20th audiences who aren't Shakespearean scholars are sent to find pieces of themselves in his richly complex metaphors and concentric spark trails of description that more often tell what an event or an emotion isn't, not what it is. It's language which requires mental gymnastics that become less strenuous the more live Shakespeare you see. Sadly, the athletics often kill humor that depends on a quick, complete reception from the audience. Audiences have grown nearly immune to the bedrock conventions of sexual farce culled by Shakespeare and the scriptwriters of Friends alike from Roman and Anglo dramatic forefathers. Forced to feel our way through the Elizabethan language like Helen Keller reading sheet music in braille, we are often less than amused to discover the source of all the hilarity is a misunderstanding that could easily take place between Janet and Crissy on Three's Company.

It's a pleasure to report, then, the actors assembled in the Undermain's souffle-fluffy production of The Comedy of Errors don't harness themselves to the language so tightly, they can't pirouette in spasms of wacky reaction when the wild and wooly proceedings demand it. As directed by Undermain ensemble member Ted Davey, the most transparently gimmicky of Shakespeare's comedies stays afloat on a silent-movie mania.

Written very early in the author's career, The Comedy of Errors is cleverly constructed of shoddy materials. Messing around simultaneously with the historical studies Henry VI and Richard III, Shakespeare was spreading his theatrical wings with the original characters in this mistaken-identity romp, produced between Love's Labour's Lost and the more fulsome The Taming of the Shrew.

One can see echoes of the same themes and situations that would surface in later romantic epics, but for the most part, Shakespeare looked to the Roman playwright Plautus. The bawdy moments, specifically a woman mistakenly seducing her husband's long estranged twin, are pure Plautus, whose comedies often as not played out inside brothels. (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is actually a series of Plautus' farces cobbled together.)

Undermain director Ted Davey, who's a talented musical comic in his own right, has encouraged his very adept cast of actors to graft a Tex Avery timing onto their exploits. They're able to do this without seeming excessively self-aware, and it twists the same shtick--two sets of twins constantly confusing each other and being confused by the islanders around them--into a captivating variety of balloon-animal shapes.

The Comedy of Errors opens with an old Syracusian merchant (Andy Long) who's threatened with execution by a Duke (Mark Farr) if the old man doesn't cough up the thousand gold pieces necessary to spare any Syracusian who trespasses onto the enemy island of Ephesus. The old man is trying to track down his lost twin sons who were separated from him as infants, along with the babies he'd purchased to be raised as their manservants.

One son, the Ephesian Antipholus (Greg Gormley), has made a prosperous family on the island with a headstrong wife Adriana (Lisa Lee Schmidt) and his lifelong faithful servant Dromo (Tom Lenaghan). By sheer coincidence, the Syracusian Antipholus (Raphael Parry) and his manservant Dromo (Dennis Millegan) have come to Ephesus to seek their fortunes in less than honorable ways. Eventually, Antipholus of Syracuse gets mixed up in a marital spat with Adriana and falls in love with her sister Luciana (Emily Ko). Meanwhile, poor Antipholus of Ephesus is locked out of home and arrested because he is thought to have pocketed a necklace made for him by a goldsmith (Francis Fusilier) who now demands his money.

On the opening night performance I saw, the cast fumbled a bit during the first act of the play, as if they weren't sure exactly how broad to play the slapstick humor Ted Davey and movement coach David Rodriquez have stirred into the comedy. From opening line to final bow, the three most consistent performers were Lisa Lee Schmidt, hilarious but human as the wrathful Adriana; Greg Gormley, who downshifts from arrogance to tattered dignity with seamless aplomb; and Dennis Millegan, a sly devil of an indentured servant who finds himself in the thrall of a very large scullery maid.

By the start of the second act, however, everyone had hit their stride. Mischievous Raphael Parry and Millegan make such appealing sidekicks, I'd love to see them resurface together in another play that focused more exclusively on their chemistry. Tom Lenaghan, as Greg Gormley's Dromo, was charmingly unShakespearean in his breathless, overgrown-kid delivery.

The Comedy of Errors is probably the least resonant of William Shakespeare's comedies. The Undermain seems perfectly aware of this fact, and has taken up the slack with its own fluid comic enthusiasm. It's a testament to the marvelous skills of the cast that this show speeds by like no Shakespearean production you've ever seen--and even makes you miss the characters when it's over.

The Comedy of Errors runs through April 5. Call 871-

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Jimmy Fowler

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