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by Shakespeare
Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival
Vanier Park
June 10-Sept. 26
604-739-0559 or

Because The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest, broadest, and most derivative comedies, directors often feel freer to take liberties with it than with the plays more central to Shakespeare’s canon.  Bard veteran David Mackay has come to be known for his wild comic imagination as both actor and director.  Here, wearing his director’s hat, he takes every liberty imaginable and gives us a gut-splitting romp, easily the funniest show of the year.  It’s rare to see a company enjoying itself so thoroughly, or an audience so utterly joyful, right through to the dance at the end.

The word that comes to mind here is “shameless”—and I mean that in the best sense.  Mackay doesn’t seem ashamed or afraid to try anything to get a laugh, and almost everything does: from farts to a guy in a bear suit to a surprise appearance by Will himself; from a monkish choir singing “Light My Fire” to rats-on-a-stick to Christopher Gaze in drag.  The justification for this ‘anything goes’ philosophy is two-fold, I’d say.  First, the play itself is so ridiculous in its conceit and plot that outrageous gags seem totally in spirit.  Second, when Mackay actually lets the characters drone on in a few long expository speeches, you realize that Shakespeare, still in his apprenticeship, could write very badly and be very dull.  It’s not sacrilege to mess with the work of this playwright, especially when the messer is so clever and has such excellent tools at his disposal as this corps of actors and design team.

The silly plot and characters, stolen from the Roman playwright Plautus, involve two sets of identical twins.  One set are masters, both named Antipholus; the other set, both named Dromio, are their servants.  Both sets were separated at birth and neither knows of the other’s existence.  So when Antipholus 1 (Kevin MacDonald) and Dromio 1 (Shawn MacDonald—no relation!) from Syracuse come to Ephesus where Antipholus 2 (Bob Frazer) and Dromio 2 (Ryan Beil) live, many zany errors of mistaken identity ensue.  The convention, of course, is that no one can tell them apart, not even A-2’s wife, Adriana, played with smouldering fury and glorious physical abandon by a very pregnant Colleen Wheeler, who is scheduled to remain in the cast until September 6. It’s frightening to think what her physical business is going to be like a month or so from now.  One very funny bit in which she doesn’t fling herself around the stage uses a hot dog and a hatchet.

In Roman comedy the clever servants drive the action.  The Dromios aren’t quite as central in Shakespeare’s version, but in this production one Dromio definitely drives the comedy.  Ryan Beil is deliriously funny.  He has a way of building laughs--through a speech about the kitchen wench who lusts after him, for instance--following a laugh line by quickly throwing out a piece of comic business, surfing on the first wave of laughter then letting the second wave build on it, then zapping you with a third on the second, and so on. He’s as immensely inventive a comic as Mackay himself and he steals this show.  Shawn MacDonald does a nice job as the other Dromio but he’s in tough here.

Delightful performances abound: Kevin MacDonald’s A-1, Michael Blake as a confused goldsmith, Amber Lewis ‘s saucy courtesan, Naomi Wright as a defiant abbess, and Jennifer Lines, playing straight-woman as Adriana’s unmarried sister.  Allan Zinyk has fun as a couple of wacky characters and Chris Gaze very nicely underplays his Duke, dressed and bewigged as Queen Elizabeth.  He admonishes a character who interrupts his speech: “Quiet!  No ad libs!  This is Shake-speare!”

Mara Gottler supplies the stunning comic-book costumes and silly wigs, Kevin McAllister has designed a clever miniature house set that serves as a puppet theatre, and Murray Price’s sound effects are priceless. 

Jerry Wasserman