`Comedy of Errors': Mere Farcical Excess


`NOTHING succeeds like excess."

The quote from Oscar Wilde appears in the program for the New York Shakespeare Festival's new production of "The Comedy of Errors," onstage through the end of this month. Shakespeare's farce celebrates "misrule," the program says, by plunging us into a topsy-turvy world where "normal rules of behavior are suspended," and we're invited to "shake off the bonds of our everyday lives" and partake of "forbidden" pleasures.

This approach to Shakespeare's comedy suggests the influence of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Soviet thinker whose ideas have become fashionable in artistic circles since his death almost 20 years ago. Bakhtin isn't mentioned by name in the production's notes, but he wrote persuasively that carnivals - and art embodying the carnival spirit - have played a crucial role in the development of civilization, by allowing momentary respites from the discipline and dignity of everyday work and family life.

I'm all for Bakhtin's writing as a healthy force in contemporary culture, and I'm all for carnivalism in life and art alike. But it has to be the real thing - and here the current "Comedy of Errors" lets us down, even though it was directed by Caca Rosset of Brazil, a country with a long and vigorous carnival tradition.

To juice up his production of the "Comedy," which many scholars consider the earliest of Shakespeare's plays, Mr. Rosset has added all sorts of spicy condiments, from vivacious music and aggressive sight gags to a whole troupe of tumblers who spill onto the stage from time to time. The play's sexual innuendoes are highlighted at every opportunity, and no chance for slapstick or silliness is passed up.

This makes for a carnival atmosphere, all right, but it doesn't contribute much to Shakespeare's play. With its multiple twins enmeshed in multiple schemes and subplots, "The Comedy of Errors" indeed portrays an upside-down society full of "identities confounded, roles reversed and ... moral distinction blurred," as the program reads. What it carnivalizes most directly, however, is the Elizabethan world view of Shakespeare's time.

IF it's to seem carnivalistic today - in a deep, provocative sense that goes beyond mere fun and games - it must be staged in a way that renews and revivifies its spirit of anything-goes impropriety, or at least pokes irreverent fun at Shakespearean theater in its own right. Shakespeare himself provided a model for this in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," where unschooled laborers put on a show that makes hilarious hash of "respectable" theatrics.

For all its energy, Rosset's production fails to accomplish anything like this. It's loud, lively, and colorful, but rarely more indecorous or "excessive" than any other evening of burlesque, vaudeville, and Shakespearean farce.

To its credit, the show boasts a diverse cast headed by Marisa Tomei, as Antiphalus's wife, an attractive actress best known for her role in the movie "My Cousin Vinny." Also present are Boyd Gaines and John Michael Higgins as the Antipholuses of Syracuse and Ephesus, respectively, and Karla Burns as the production's most robust singer. The company called Antigravity, Inc., supplies the evening's gymnastics.

Perhaps inspired by the Olympics in Barcelona, designer Jose de Anchieta Costa has concocted a setting that's closer to Antoni Gaudi architecture than to the Globe Theatre where Shakespeare labored. Peter Kaczorowski did the expressive lighting, and Mark Bennett composed the boisterous score.

"The Comedy of Errors," running through Aug. 30 at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park, is No. 21 in the Shakespeare festival's ongoing marathon of all the Bard's plays.

As it happens, Bakhtin wasn't a big Shakespeare fan, and it's unlikely this production would have changed his opinion for the better.

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