Does the NEA’s Shakespeare for a New Generation program assume the only way to grab younger auds is to turn the classics into a Saturday morning cartoon? That’s what one would guess from this attention-deficit-disorder production of Shakespeare’s early comedy of mistaken identities at Yale Repertory Theater. Director Kenneth Albers, a resident actor and director with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, creates a Middle Eastern bazaar-o world filled with goofy sound effects (supplied by a percussionist overseeing the action from a balcony), wacky voices and a barrage of Looney Tunes slapstick. But even the most toon-addicted kid would find the over-the-top production desperate, simple-minded and unfunny.
It’s not only the boys from Syracuse who are having an identity crisis; so does the production. Albers seems to be inspired less by the Bard than by the original source material by Plautus, making it a kind of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Casbah.” But turning it into a two-dimensional sketch and animating it with inexhaustible energy robs the work of the shadings, depth and distinctions Shakespeare gave it.
Though fundamentally a farce in its setup, physical action and slight characterizations, the double-trouble story still has heart, even if its poetry doesn’t soar as in the Bard’s more mature comedies and its exposition-heavy opening becomes more than a mouthful.
But there’s still a strong sense of harmony, precision and grace in a comedy that has one brother trying to lose himself in his efforts to find his twin. When deftly executed, it’s a comedy that can make for not just a merry time but a reflective one as well.
This isn’t one of those times.
Here it’s nearly all a burlesque, with the cast pushed beyond reason. Though one twin is libidinous and the other more reserved, as foolishly and frantically played by Ted Deasy and Grant Goodman, they have little distinction and earn little affection.
The long-lost brothers’ twin servants are even broader, played here by women — Catherine Lynn Davis and Mikelle Johnson. Their sex is not so much switched as simply eliminated, making the doubled Dromios genderless, ineffectual doodles. The female love interests, Joey Parsons and Jennifer Roszell, also are lost in their unconnecting extreme comic styles.
Only Laurie Kennedy as mother Emelia and Dan Kremer as the faithful father maintain some semblance of reality and humanity and give solid perfs.
The student design team does an admirable job. Evonne Esther Griffin’s less-is-Moorish unit set neatly supplies the varied playing spaces in Ephesus. Alixandra Gage Englund’s costumes have imaginative flair, though her excess is misdirected when she makes a minor character the grandest peacock onstage.
But balance, proportion and a more delicate style is exactly what’s missing in this exhausting production of errors.