Before the antics of Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, before Jerry Lewis won over the fickle hearts of the French, lo, even before Milton Berle was belted with numerous pies in the face and Buster Keaton tripped over his own feet, a very famous writer wooed the crowds with slapstick comedy. William Shakespeare probably started out with the intention of writing this type of broad farce, since many of his earliest works A Love's Labour's Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona A contain some rather heavy-handed humor. And during this same period of time, circa 1593, he penned the play widely considered to be his most sheerly amusing piece: The Comedy of Errors.
When audiences today see this work in its original form, they seldom find much to laugh at, and certainly miss the similarities between an Ace Ventura-style farce and the Bard's script. The length of the play, the load of verbiage, the puns that probably worked better in Elizabethan times, all tend to obscure the tone of madcap comedy. For this reason, many contemporary directors enjoy adapting and revising the work: In 1983, the Goodman Arts Center presented a crazed, free-for-all version, complete with the Flying Karamazov Brothers, references to the Iran-contra scandal, drag queens, roller skates, puppets, and rope tricks. It was a most enjoyable production, and it captured the same spirit that I believe Shakespeare intended.
The current adaption done by John Briggs for the Florida Shakespeare Festival, Cowboy Comedy of Errors, is equally fun-filled. As in the original play, a man named Antipholus and his servant Dromio arrive in a town, unaware that their identical twins (who also go by the same names) live there. In Shakespeare's version, the pair came from Syracuse to Ephesus; Briggs sets the action in the early 1800s, and his travelers come from Juarez to El Paso. The El Paso Antipholus has a shrewish wife, Adriana, and a fair sister-in-law, Luciana; the El Paso Dromio is married to the corpulent kitchen maid Luce. Because of mistaken identities between both sets of twins a steady stream of chaos ensues, including jailings, infidelities, beatings, robberies, and gunfights.
By compressing the play into a lightning-fast 90 minutes, Briggs makes sure that wacky frivolity ignites the action from start to finish. The audience hardly has time to breathe before encountering the next intentionally goofy joke. Granted, if a greater contemporary comic writer than Briggs had tried his hand at the piece A a Dennis Miller, or someone from the original National Lampoon bunch A the gags might be a lot sharper, but Briggs's version still satisfies. While he throws in a few pointless or obvious jokes, such as rendering Shakespeare's town courtesan a Mae West clone, and making references to Clint Eastwood and Scarlett O'Hara, he also directs his actors to speak Shakespeare's abbreviated lines in a way that impressively highlights the Bard's bawdy sense of humor.
Briggs and the production benefit mightily from an excellent cast, adept at physical comedy and overall timing. Each actor plays his or her part to the hilt, outrageously camping it up with flair. Particularly superb are John Baldwin as Antipholus from Juarez and Mike Benitez as Angelo, the goldsmith. They offer subtle, often hilarious work using their bodies, faces, and tones of voice, and both are consistently a joy to watch.
A brightly-painted, cartoonish set by Darin R. Jones and perfect costumes by Chuck and Traci Batchelor of Costume World complete an impressive show, which is fortunately also playing to many Dade County school audiences. Briggs's madness is a terrific way of introducing youngsters to the wit and art of Shakespeare; he changes just enough to make the play into contemporary slapstick, but doesn't lose the general plot or wordplay.
As I have often said, if a director is going to do a revival, it's best when he adds his special touch. Purists hiss when this advice is applied to the venerable Shakespeare, but I insist that it's a lot better to have a full house laughing at a work written 400 years ago than to have a half-empty house yawning through a great classic. Briggs is a brave man, and his courage has paid off handsomely. If there is a spirit world, I don't think he has to worry about the Bard's reaction to this new version: Judging from The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare had a far richer sense of humor than do most scholars of his works.