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The Flying Karamazov Brothers Juggle ‘The Comedy of Errors’

June 1, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Flying Karamazov Brothers don’t just act in ″The Comedy of Errors,″ they juggle it, throwing the play around like a battalion of brightly colored bowling pins.

Their anarchic revival of the youthful Shakespearean comedy, which opened Sunday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, may not be the definitive version but it does offer some hilarious hijinks, much of it due to the Karamazovs’ special brand of off-the-wall humor.

The free-wheeling, Lincoln Center Theater production, directed by Robert Woodruff, could be subtitled ″Revenge of the New Vaudevillians.″ What Woodruff has done is devise a showcase for some gifted vaudeville-style performers who if they were around 70 years ago would have been playing the Palace.

Besides the ever-airborne Karamazovs, the cast includes Avner Eisenberg, the wistful and gentle clown known as Avner the Eccentric; Vaudeville Nouveau, a trio of one-time San Francisco street performers; the incomparable Ethyl Eichelberger, a veteran of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company; and Sophie Hayden, who first won notice as a baton twirler in the musical ″Barnum.″

Don’t go to this revival of ″The Comedy of Errors,″ expecting to savor every word of the Bard. The text is not all there and what is left has been peppered with typical Karamazov jokes and puns, some good, some bad and most very funny.

It’s not that Shakespeare has been shunted aside in this production. He’s just one of the gang in this verbal and visual pun fest. In fact, he’s right up there on stage in the person of that quiet Karamazov, Timothy Daniel Furst. You know the character Furst portrays is Shakespeare because he laughs at all the jokes in the play.

The comedy begins with Eisenberg as a janitor sweeping the stage, a crazy quilt, paint-splashed playing area filled with trap doors and neon signs and created by set designer David Gropman. Somehow Eisenberg gets swept into the story. It’s a tale that takes a long time to be told.

Program notes explain that the plot ″has something to do with twins and juggling.″ Karamazovs Howard Jay Patterson and Paul Magid are the long-lost noblemen, brothers separated at birth. Their equally identical twin servants are played by the remaining members of the Karamazov quintet, Randy Nelson and Samuel Ross Williams. The four are a genial, cheerful crew. Nelson and Williams are particularly appealing, radiating a goofiness that doesn’t become wearisome over the long evening.

The brothers’ eventual reunions take place in an ancient Ephesus where vaudeville is king. The town’s motto is ″Juggle or Die,″ and the poor Antipholus and Dromio from Syracuse must learn not to drop anything or else face the executioner.

The citizens of Ephesus include tightrope walkers, trapeze artists, policemen who ride unicycles, a belly dancer, a fire-eater and an all-purpose combo that plays everything from the Notre Dame fight song to a bit from ″West Side Story.″

Among the other cast members, Miss Hayden, as Adriana the outraged wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, is astounding. Not only is she comfortable with the language of the play, she is a superb baton twirler and physical comedian. She tosses that baton to punctuate complaints about her errant husband.

Eisenberg does a delicious bit of nonsense with a second role, Dr. Pinch, a puppet-like creature with tiny arms and legs. Also shining are Alec Willows as a decidedly schizophrenic gold dealer; Wendy Parkman, a trapeze star who must have the strongest ankles on Broadway; and Eichelberger who doubles as a courtesan and the mother of those long-lost twins.

The play could use a bit of trimming and some of the jokes and characters fizzle out. The portrayal of Luce, Adriana’s comic maid as a grotesque Madonna-like creature doesn’t work despite the efforts of an accomplished performer like Karla Burns.

The current revival was first performed at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 1983 and the following year was staged at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles. This third production may go on too long, but most members of the audience won’t notice. For much of the time, the Karamazovs and ″The Comedy of Errors,″ remains a dizzy, daffy evening of fun.

In other reviews, Mel Gussow of The New York Times wrote that Shakespeare himself might have enjoyed the ″frolicsome clown show″ even though ″nothing is too sacred or profane to be ridiculed, beginning with Shakespeare″ and the text has been doctored to include references to names in the news like Oliver North and Gary Hart.

Daily News critic Howard Kissel found textual justification for casting the circus-like crew because Shakespeare said, early in the play, that the town where it takes place is full of ″nimble jugglers that deceive the eye.″

Besides, Kissel continued, the play retains ″plenty of those vulgar puns that must have been real thighslappers 400 years ago and are inexplicable now.″

″In this context the playful vulgarity of the Karamazovs fits right in,″ Kissel said.

But New York Post critic Clive Barnes found little to commend in the off- beat production.

″While charming, laid back individuals, the Karamazovs are rotten actors, which no amount of their heavly underlined acknowledgment of the jokey fact can excuse,″ he said.

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