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Bard Noir

Any production of a Shakespeare play, no matter how flawed, can uncover unexpected layers of meaning. Take Hollywood Boulevard Theatre's threadbare Comedy of Errors, now at the Hollywood Playhouse. Director Paul Waxman utterly fails to get the most basic staging right; his direction sometimes consists of actors wandering pointlessly back and forth; many a scene rattles on chaotically. Most of this is to be expected -- Waxman (the son of the company's producing director, Jerry Waxman) has directed one show prior to this, and his cast is, for the most part, inexperienced. But somehow, the production manages to click on more sophisticated aspects of the text. As a result, this Comedy may fail to please a general audience, yet it offers some golden nuggets for Shakespeare fanatics.

The story is as old as the hills, much older than Shakespeare himself. Based on a Plautus story line (that's Plautus, as in ancient Rome), Comedy has to do with a young gentleman, Antipholus, and his servant, Dromio, from Syracuse. The two visit Ephesus, where the spitting images of both (with identical names) reside. The wife of the Ephesus Antipholus serves dinner to the Syracuse Antipholus, who falls in love with the wife's sister, after which, understandably, all hell breaks loose. The resulting high jinks usually involve a lot of knockabout physical gags and broad comedic shtick until all is resolved in a final scene that is the epitome of plot contrivance.

Waxman's odd concept is a film noir take, with the cast arrayed in 1940s styles -- heavy suits and fedoras for the men, beaded dresses and gloves for the women (all nicely done by costume designer K. Blair Brown). The noir concept doesn't extend to the set design (a couple of generic doors and no more), but David Hernandez' shadowy lighting has a noirish, murky feel. The period suits have a certain panache, but it's hard to tell who's who. The fedoras are snazzy, but they block the actors' faces, with only their lower jaws visible in the stark, angled lighting. Worse, Waxman's staging fails to offer much story-telling clarity. Case in point: the Bard's famously boring opening scene, a long talkathon in which a visiting merchant, Egeon, who is under a death sentence, delivers a tale of familial woe. Waxman serves this up as a two-person scene in front of the red-velvet proscenium curtain. The dense, 400-year-old text is difficult enough as it is; without clear staging, the burden falls entirely on the actor playing Egeon who, while demonstrating rhetorical flourishes, gargles his speeches. The result is that the scene is rendered virtually unintelligible, even for aficionados.

The show also suffers from the decision to employ slapstick comedy à la the Three Stooges. Against the noir style of the rest of the show, the routines fall flat. The stylistic disparity extends to the Antipholi themselves. Matt Chapman as the Syracuse twin plays his role as a romantic leading man, but Scott Wells has to work hard as his burlesque-style Ephesus twin, mugging and grimacing to uneven effect. The same applies to the Dromios; Odell A. Rivas, a vocally gifted young actor who has slowly and steadily refined his classical acting skills in a string of area productions, offers some textual subtleties, while David Hernandez as Dromio of Ephesus is directed as an all-purpose stooge. This foursome usually carries the play, but here, despite good efforts from all, their hard work doesn't come to much. It's difficult to get laughs when you're standing in the lighting for The Big Sleep.

Despite these errors, the production has virtues. For starters, it's not played as a comedy -- at least, it's not all yuks all the time. The typical one-gear approach to Shakespeare has killed many a production. Tragedies are played with deadly seriousness and comedies with relentless silliness. But the plays themselves deny such generic thinking. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is really a romantic comedy until the funny guy is killed halfway through. Hamlet has, line for line, more jokes than any other Shakespearean play. And Twelfth Night is one of the cruelest.

This production manages to reveal the darker, dramatic elements in the text, notably the scenes with the women, especially Adriana, the heartsick wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. Shaun Marie Levin, a resourceful actress, plays this character as she ought to be played but hardly ever is -- not as flyweight comedy but as romantic melodrama. Adriana's fears of her husband's infidelity and her anger and confusion when her sister appears to be attracted to him are all clearly rendered. The same goes for the character of Adriana's sister, Luciana (Melanie Liebner). She is courted by the other Antipholus, whom she mistakes for her sister's husband. This situation is usually played as farce, with the boy chasing the girl and the girl rebuffing him. But here, Liebner plays Luciana's desire for her sister's husband realistically, which lifts this scene from a generic comedic riff to something decidedly more interesting.

There's a comment on feminine stereotypes by double-casting the slinky Courtesan with the stiff-backed Abbess (the droll Sharon Stern does fine work with both) and the use of women to play all the minor roles -- at one point, all three male characters on stage are played by women in suits, fedoras, and fake facial hair. These psychosexual embellishments may be intentional or completely coincidental, but the theatrical implications are interesting. Are these peculiarities worth the cost of the ticket? Maybe not. But some might find intriguing ideas to ponder.

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Ronald Mangravite

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