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IOWA CITY — Watching “The Comedy of Errors” is like watching a Saturday morning cartoon.
In the hands of Riverside Theatre’s elite cast and director Angie Toomsen’s brilliant guidance, a funny thing happened on the way to Ephesus in this free Shakespeare production. It will be shivering the timbers of the Festival Stage through Aug. 22, 2021, in Iowa City’s Lower City Park.
If you think Shakespeare is stuffy, think again. Toomsen and company have lifted the language to new heights, plucking the mistaken-identity story out of the Bard’s Elizabethan era and twirling it into late-’60s, early-’70s Nashville.
Y’all come down now, y’hear? It’s the funniest free-for-all you’re likely ever to see, full of merrie melodies, looney toons, and lots of nods to Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd, a bunch of daffy ducks, and more than one Pepe Le Pew in female form — all with plenty of Foghorn Leghorn strut.
When was the last time you saw some boot-scootin’ boogie in a Shakespeare show?
It’s all so hilarious, that on last Friday’s opening night, one gentleman sitting near a corner of the stage laughed so hard that one of the major players had to turn his back to the audience to hide his smile and regain his composure. His cohort was struggling not to laugh, too, in full view of the all-ages audience — just like the good old days when neither Carol Burnett nor Harvey Korman could keep a straight face on TV.
Melonie Stoll’s outrageous costumes channel several instantly recognizable Grand Ole Opry stars, from Porter Wagoner, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Minnie Pearl. How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E! It looks like a giant “Hee Haw” heaven reunion, set against S. Benjamin Farrar’s fanciful scenery, where Greco-Roman architecture collides with Nashville neon and lots of mysteriously opening doors.
What: Riverside Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park
Where: Festival Stage, Lower City Park, 200 Park Rd., Iowa City
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 19 to 22
Admission: Free, no ticket needed
Extras: Seating is first-come, masks not required, socially distanced section available; lawn activities and food trucks at 6:30 p.m.
All this visual whimsicality supports the physical hilarity and Ye Olde World-speak so well that the 16th-century language is never lost on the 21st- century ears receiving it.
Here’s the story: Egeon and Emilia of Syracuse welcomed identical twin sons, and named them both Antipholus, as one does. Since this merchant-class couple would need servant/companions at their boys’ beck and call, they bought identical twin boys, both named Dromio, and began raising them together.
But alas, on a sea voyage, they were shipwrecked and the family torn asunder. Egeon and one Antipholus and Dromio made it home to Syracuse, while the others were rescued and taken to the rival Mediterranean city of Ephesus.
By the time the Syracuse boys reach 18, they decide to set out to find their lost brothers. (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience thinking, “Dromio, Dromio, wherefore art though Dromio?”)
Egeon (Tad Paulson) embarks separately on his own mission to reunite his family, but is arrested when he enters Ephesus, since that city’s borders are closed to Syracuseans. He has one day to raise the ransom needed to spare him from execution.
Meanwhile, the grown-up Syracuse Antipholus (Patrick Du Laney) and Dromio (Elijah Jones) ramble about Ephesus, where they run into Adriana (Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers) and her sister, Luciana (Genevieve Wisdom).
Naturally, since Adriana is married to the prosperous Antipholus of Ephesus (Logan Ernstthal), she mistakes the Syracuseans for her husband and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus (Ray Vanek).
And thus the comedy of the errors is off and running.
While everyone onstage is flawless, the fact that Broadway hasn’t reopened means that we get to marvel at Du Laney’s comedic genius, from a knowing wink to full-frontal physicality.
Of course, he’s playing with a pack of pros. And none of this is happening by accident. You don’t become living toons without a ton of improv action refined through rehearsal.
“The cast had full permission to invent and play as we were creating these characters,” Toomsen told The Gazette. “That was definitely the spirit of the rehearsal space. …
“It begins as improvisation and brainstorming and then it’s pretty highly choreographed,” she noted. “In order to get it right, it gets broken down step by step, like fight choreography.”
Everyone in the cast deserves a separate shoutout, but special nods go to Jones as Dromio of Syracuse, whose hip swivels are as hilarious as his mood swivels; Matthew James, who proves once again that he’s perhaps the most versatile actor in the area, completely changing characters and costumes in a flash; Hartsgrove Mooers, as the bewildered wife lost in the identity crisis confusion; and Vanek, who also rakes in plenty of laughs as Dromio of Ephesus.
Do yourself a favor and see this Southern-fried Shakespeare. It’s bubbling over with double, double toil and trouble in a most delightful way.
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